Whenever these two players meet there seems to be an agreement in place that they will squeeze every point until the fans squeak. Well, squeak, groan, squeal and then go absolutely potty. Nothing is conceded, nothing garnered easily. Every game is a battle for supremacy, a sublimely gifted war of attrition.
In Rio, where they slugged it out to decide who would become Olympic champion, Andy Murray finally got the better of Juan Martin Del Potro. But it took him four hours and two minutes. Yesterday, they eked a further hour and five minutes out of their Davis Cup semi-final rubber, leaving both men propped on their rackets like they were walking sticks by the time the Argentine player wrapped things up with an ace to hand his nation a massive advantage in the quest to reach November’s final, against either France or Croatia.
In the second rubber of the day, Kyle Edmund tried to minimise the damage, winning the first set tie-break against Guido Pella, but the 21-year-old who is ranked just six places below the Argentine and won both his games in the quarter-final with Serbia, failed to maintain his standards, losing the next three sets, 4-6, 3-6, 2-6, to leave the home nation with a very tenuous grip on the massive trophy and requiring victories in the doubles and two remaining singles rubbers if they are to progress.
The onus has long been on Murray to deliver. Carrying the weight of the British Isles on his shoulders, he helped them to victory last term, but given the demands of this year, which has been as arduous as it has been rewarding, the last thing the Wimbledon and Olympic champion needed was another meeting with Del Potro.
Back from a series of wrist injuries and operations, the 2009 US Open winner is playing the kind of tennis that took him to No 4 in the world in 2010. He is dogged and gifted and hungry to make up for lost time and, just like Murray, he is a player who forces opponents to win matches. They rarely just chuck them away. That was evident right up to the final exchanges, with the pain etched on their faces as they stretched every sinew to return balls that no mere mortal would have audacity to believe they had the wherewithal to get back across the net, let alone the energy to reach them in the first place.
In front of a mainly partisan British crowd, the players had taken to the court amid the usual razzamatazz, with bagpipes wailing and the PA system booming out the kind of tunes that get the Barmy Army bouncing and everyone else’s heart pumping a little bit faster.
But everything that surrounded them scuttled into the background as these two tennis gladiators faced up.
Having won the toss, Del Potro elected to let Murray serve first in the hope of catching him cold. He didn’t. Courtesy of a couple of perfectly executed trademark lobs, Murray felt his way through the game as both men tried to take control of the tempo and the tie. Holding serve, Murray then made short shrift of breaking his opponent.
It was a sign of the ebb and flow that was to follow as Del Potro quickly got his revenge, breaking back in the very next game. And he would repeat that feat in the seventh game of the set as long rally after long rally forced both combatants to shuttle back and forth across the baseline, looking for a chink of light.
One of the best, if not the best returner in the game these days, the fact that Del Potro made it impossible for the Scot to get any kind of traction when it came to his service games illustrated the magnitude of the task facing the Brit. Having broken him so early on, Murray managed to win just one more point in the Del Potro serve throughout that set as the visitor wrapped things up 6-4. Each point still had to be grafted for, Murray chasing down lost causes and somehow getting them back into play in the hope his challenger would make an error. But, while there were plenty of massive forehands, errors were few and far between in this enthralling contest.
In fact, Del Potro won 18 points in a row before he offered the home favourite an opening with a double fault. Two points later, Murray gained inroads of his own volition.
It wasn’t enough to win him the game but it showed that he was beginning to get a read on the big man across the net and, in the 12th game of the set, he finally traded that in for something tangible to break Del Potro’s hold and wrap it up 7-5.
The intensity and the calibre of the tennis was fitting for a tie with so much resting on it as the players rose to the occasion and flexed their competitive spirit. With two break each, they took things all the way to the tiebreak in the third, which Murray edged to take the lead, much to the approval of the buoyant British crowd who were going through emotional agonies to match the players’ physical exertions.
At that stage of proceedings, the mood changed in the arena, as Murray seemed to be proving that anything his rival could do, somehow, the Scot managed to dig deeper. But if that was the gauntlet being thrown down, Del Potro picked it up as expertly as Murray managed to pick up drop shots at the net.
Having levelled things with a 6-3 bossing of the fourth set, it all came down to the decider and, having pickpocketed Murray in the seventh game of that set, the Argentine withstood all that was thrown at him, and, believe me, Murray chucked plenty of guile and graft into the mix.
He had been trying to protect his unbeaten record in home Davis Cup rubbers. Instead, they both set new records for time spent on court.
Neither had been taken beyond the five hour mark before. Yesterday, though, they took each other to hell and back.