- Bonnie D. Ford, ESPN Senior Writer
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LONDON -- This Olympic tennis tournament is special because of where it's being played, so it shouldn't be surprising that it produced at least one match as intense and high-caliber as a Grand Slam final.
Yes, there are superficial differences. Swiss icon Roger Federer and Juan Martin del Potro of Argentina were wearing their national colors Friday, garb that would have been taboo during The Fortnight. A caterwauling baby in the stands who caught the attention of the BBC commentators wouldn't have been allowed into Centre Court under the normal rules that bar small children. And the two men were playing three sets, although for most of the sunny, breezy afternoon, they seemed determined to make it five.
There are no final-set tiebreakers in Olympic tennis. So just as they would at Wimbledon, when Federer and del Potro arrived at checkmate in the third set, they played on. And on. The lanky, powerful del Potro kept an unearthly grip on his service games, hitting 70 percent of his first serves over the course of the match, and Federer rose above the conditions to serve 68 percent. They kept bending but were broken only twice apiece.
In that third set, Federer was serving second, scrambling to stay alive in the match each time. Every game that equalized the score earned him another chance to stand in against the del Potro serve and forehand that felt like punching a heavy bag if he got his racket on them at all. Federer was motivated by his own professionalism, as always; by his yearning for the one big title that has eluded him; and by the prospect of winning Switzerland's first medal of the London Games.
He guaranteed that by advancing to Sunday's final in a 3-6, 7-6 (5), 19-17 victory that felt more like a trilogy. At 4 hours, 26 minutes, it was not only the longest match in Olympic history, but the longest men's three-setter in the Open era that began in 1968. It took considerably more time on court than his emotional four-set win over Great Britain's Andy Murray last month -- the same Andy Murray who set up a golden rematch by beating Novak Djokovic in the other semifinal, 7-5, 7-5.
If there was any remaining question about whether Olympic matches could bring the best out of top players, this should silence it. "The deeper we went into the match, the more I thought, 'Wow, this is so cool to be part of a match like this,''' Federer said.
Serena Williams has proved that theorem in a different way, with absolute domination on the same turf where she also won less than four weeks ago. Williams mauled world No. 1 Victoria Azarenka 6-1, 6-2 in a 63-minute semifinal and has not allowed an opponent more than three games in a set through five matches, which requires another kind of absolute focus than that demonstrated by the men.
Maria Sharapova seems capable of providing sterner competition in their Saturday singles final, in which both will join Federer in pursuit of the so-called "Golden Slam" -- all four major championships plus Olympic gold.
"I just feel like something about this tournament is making me play well,'' said Williams, who already owns two gold medals in doubles with sister Venus and is going for a third.
"The big deal for me is that the USA is guaranteed another medal. I'm guaranteed to just go out there tomorrow and have fun.''
Federer was returning to the confines where he has won seven times. His age-defying defeat of Murray here last month snapped a two-year Grand Slam title drought. "I'm very fortunate, our generation is fortunate, we all are, that the Olympics are taking place at Wimbledon, a place where I have many great memories from,'' he said. But Federer added that he thought it was his experience in the crucible of title competition in general, rather than the stadium in particular, that enabled him to stay with his would-be spoiler.
Federer was 12-2 against del Potro entering the match, but knew better than to look beyond him. One of those two losses memorably came in the 2009 U.S. Open final, making del Potro the only man outside the tight circle of three -- Federer, Rafael Nadal and Novak Djokovic -- who have monopolized the major trophies in recent years. More recently, del Potro won the first two sets of their quarterfinal match at Roland Garros before Federer found his stride.
After del Potro finally yielded on match point, swatting a backhand into the net, the two walked slowly to the middle of the court and leaned on each other, an exhausted heavyweight and the lighter, ropier fighter who had just beaten him. The Argentine swayed as he fought tears, and then gave in to them in his chair.
"To be honest, to lose this way hurts a lot; it's very hard to talk about it right now,'' del Potro told Spanish-speaking reporters, struggling to keep his voice steady. "This one will be hard to get over. Someone has to win these matches; today it was his turn to win. At the U.S. Open it was my turn. That's the way it goes.''
Federer didn't even mind the crying baby. It reminded him of his 3-year-old twin girls and of all that has happened since his first Olympics in 2000 -- which also happened to be where he met his wife, Mirka. At that tournament, he was an unknown who lost in the semis and then in the bronze medal match; no one noticed when he didn't make the podium. Twelve years later, he is a superstar who only wants it more.
"I'm sure the emotion [Sunday] is going to be extreme,'' he said.
Roger Federer and Juan Martin del Potro fought and fought and fought all the way into the record books. But only the Swiss has a chance for gold.