Rafael Nadal’s bid for an unprecedented second Olympic singles gold medal ended with a thrill-a-minute semifinal loss to the resurgent Juan Martin del Potro.
Del Potro, who earned a bronze for Argentina four years ago, will add a silver or gold to that after advancing to the Rio de Janeiro Games final by coming back to stun the third-seeded Nadal 5-7, 6-4, 7-6 (5) on Saturday.
Using the same ferocious forehands that carried him past No. 1 Novak Djokovic in the first round a week ago, del Potro now will try to pull off a third surprise on Sunday, when he meets defending champion Andy Murray in the best-of-five-set final.
The No. 2-seeded Murray earned a gold in singles and a silver in mixed doubles for Britain at the 2012 London Games.
No tennis player has won two Olympic singles golds, let alone two in a row.
“It would mean a lot, obviously,” Murray said after beating fourth-seeded Kei Nishikori of Japan 6-1, 6-4 to stretch his winning streak to a career-high-tying 17 matches. “It’s obviously not an easy thing to do. That’s why it’s not been done before.”
Standing in Murray’s way now will be del Potro, who won the 2009 U.S. Open but has fallen to 141st in the rankings after missing 2½ years’ worth of Grand Slam tournaments because of three operations on his left wrist.
He beat two-time major title winner Stan Wawrinka at Wimbledon in June, then used all of his 6-foot-6 frame to produce intimidating forehand after forehand that Djokovic couldn’t fend off a week ago. That same formula worked against Nadal, with 18 of del Potro’s 19 groundstroke winners coming off his preferred wing.
It’s been a tough road back for del Potro, who got down on his back, spread-eagle, near the Olympic logo after the riveting semifinal ended with Nadal sailing a forehand wide. Moments later, del Potro knelt down and kissed the dot atop the middle letter of “Rio” near the five rings.
Del Potro’s celebration wasn’t finished: He leaped into the front row of stands for a group hug with some of the thousands of flag-waving, name-chanting fans who rooted so vociferously for their man.
Nadal, a 14-time Grand Slam champion, earned the singles gold medal at the 2008 Beijing Games, and added a doubles gold on Friday night, teaming with his good pal Marc Lopez. But instead of another medal of that color, he will be trying to go home with a bronze now by beating Nishikori on Sunday — not bad, considering he missed 2½ months with an injured left wrist.