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Federer tops Del Potro in marathon set to clinch medal, reach final

WIMBLEDON, England -- SI.com caught up with Sports Illustrated senior writer Jon Wertheim after Roger Federer defeated Juan Martin del Potro 3-6, 7-6 (5), 19-17 in the Olympic semifinals on Friday. The Swiss star clinched his first singles medal and moved on to the gold-medal match.

SI.com: How did this match end up at 19-17 in the third set?

Wertheim: For all the times we've seen Federer's brilliance here on the grass at the All England Club, this was much more about his grinding. "Winning ugly" is probably going too far, but Federer dirtied his hands Friday, shanking routine groundstrokes several feet beyond the lines. This was a real battle. Federer was broken in the first set and lost 6-3. The second set came down to just a few points that Federer played better in the tiebreaker. Then the third set, a 36-game staring contest. Del Potro blinked first at 9-9, allowing Federer to break. With Del Potro serving first, you'd think the reliable Federer would serve it out before this match got out of hand, right? Nope. Federer blinked next to get broken at love. A full 16 games later, Federer broke again at 17-all and then served out the match.

SI.com: Did Federer win it, or did Del Potro lose it?

Wertheim: Federer won it. Del Potro, not exactly a player known for his will or competitive instincts, kept coming up with big shots and forced Federer to come up with some Olympic, if you'll pardon the pun, serving. Del Potro is inevitably devastated, but he really broke new personal ground Friday -- on grass, no less.

SI.com: Is Del Potro nearing his 2009 pre-surgery form?

Wertheim: I would say definitely. He had wrist surgery after winning the 2009 U.S. Open (where he beat Federer in the final, by the way), but there seems to be a bit of mental recovery as well after missing so much time. This year, after winning the first two sets, he should have beaten Federer at the French Open before his knee betrayed him. Now he comes within a few points of defeating a seven-time Wimbledon champion and plays a 36-game set before relenting. Cold comfort this afternoon, but in the big picture he should be proud of the state of his game and the state of his mind. He's come a long way, and he's back to winning the matches he's supposed to win. Stay tuned for the breakthrough against the top guys.

SI.com: How did the atmosphere compare to a big match at a Grand Slam?

Wertheim: It felt as big as a Grand Slam semi, and yet different. Remember: There were so many elements Friday. You had Roger Federer on Centre Court; you had a medal hanging in the balance; you had the overlay of the Olympics (Kobe Bryant in the stands in a USA Basketball shirt); and you even had Andy Murray waiting in the wings. What a fun day to have Centre Court tickets.

SI.com: We've seen a few of these mini-marathons: Should final sets use tiebreakers?

Wertheim: I think right now we should celebrate a tremendous match and Federer prevailing, but when the dust settles (or the grass browns, as it were), there's a discussion to be had about these ultralong matches. They screw up the schedule and exhaust both players with it sometimes reaching a point of absurdity. I was just talking to John McEnroe, who advocates for the fifth-set tiebreaker. What if we compromised and played a super tiebreaker at 10-10 in a decisive set?

Some stats and figures from the match ...

266: Minutes in the match, making it the longest best-of-three affair of the Open Era.

23: More minutes the match lasted than the previous best-of-three record, Novak Djokovic vs. Rafael Nadal at the 2009 Mutua Madrid Open.

58: Games needed to complete the match, excluding the second-set tiebreaker.

4: Service breaks, two apiece, despite 20 break points in the match. Federer was 2-of-13 and Del Potro 2-of-7.

366: Points contested.

6: More total points won by Federer, 186 to Del Potro's 180.

36: Minutes it took Del Potro to take the first set.

163: Minutes it took Federer to win the third set.

64: Winners hit by Federer, 13 more than Del Potro.

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