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Juan Martin del Potro's dream run in Rio nearing gold

RIO DE JANEIRO -- Once he finally vanquished one of the greatest competitors in the history of his sport and fell to center court in celebration, a teary-eyed Juan Martin del Potro turned the stands here into a mosh pit.

He jumped into the stadium's front rows, letting his boisterous supporters hold him and revel with the man they had spent all afternoon exhorting during a 3-hour, 8-minute match against Rafael Nadal that was so emotion packed and well-played, it will sit in the memory banks for good.

On a crisp Rio afternoon, del Potro defeated Nadal 5-7, 6-4, 7-6 (5), sending the talented but often-injured Argentinian into the Sunday's gold medal final. There he will take on defending Olympic singles champion Andy Murray of Britain, whose 6-1, 6-4 win against Kei Nishikori seemed coldly flat in comparison to the battle del Potro and Nadal waged later in the afternoon.

"I am living a dream," said del Potro, who in 2009 defeated Nadal and Roger Federer to win the US Open. He continued in his soft-voiced, broken English. "It could be even better than the US Open tournament. My emotions are so high. After every match, the crowds make me cry."

Asked to sum up the semifinal, del Potro was succinct: "Against Rafa, you never know when you are going to win. He fights all the time. He never gives up."

That has never been more true than during this tournament. Nadal has been battling his own injures -- to his back and wrist -- and also a crisis of confidence that has hurt the 14-time Grand Slam winner's level of play. He dropped out of the middle of the 2016 French Open, didn't play Wimbledon and hardly practiced before Rio.

Yet on Friday night, Nadal and partner Marc Lopez beat Florin Mergea and Horia Tecau of Romania 6-2, 3-6, 6-4 to win the doubles gold. And Saturday, he looked very much like the Nadal of old. After dropping his opening service game, he hung close to del Potro, then broke twice to win the first set.

As the second set began, it was the Argentinian's turn. Del Potro started dictating play with his singular weapon: a forehand that slingshots off of his racket with such force that it time and again left the unrelenting Nadal without answers. Del Potro would end this match with 18 outright winning forehands. He won at least two dozen more because his forehand was hit so hard that it drew an error.

The fans couldn't get enough. They gave the circular stadium the feel of a World Cup soccer match, an electrified vibe that is rarely seen on the professional tour but that has been a staple in Rio.

With del Potro and Nadal going deep in the third set, the Argentinian's supporters shouted in Spanish or serenaded their favorite son by chanting his nickname -- "Delpo! Delpo! Delpo!" Much of the rest of the crowd -- largely Brazilian, clearly unhappy with fans rooting so hard for a player from rival Argentina -- replied with boos, screeching whistles or by breaking into their own chants in Portuguese.

When they were done, their shouts echoed across the stadium with another name: "Rafa! Rafa! Rafa!"

The match marched forward. Every time Nadal began making a run, del Potro could have folded, content with making the semifinals days after first-round upset win against top-seeded Novak Djokovic.

But del Potro seemed to be playing with a mission. Not only for his country but for his own career. Seven years ago, when del Potro won the US Open, it was considered a good bet that he would soon challenge for the game's No. 1 ranking.

But then came the injuries. In 2010, del Potro had surgery on his right wrist. In a roughly two-year span ending in the summer of 2015, he went through three more operations, this time on his left wrist, which he uses to stabilize his penetrating two-handed backhand. The effects have been plain to see:

There's his backhand -- which he was forced to rework and now uses mostly for defense and change of pace. There's his time on tour. One of the game's most charismatic and well-liked players contemplated retirement while playing only 14 matches in 2014 and 2015. The Olympics, which he came into ranked a shockingly low No. 141, has been a chance to show he can still matter in men's tennis.

For a player sidelined so frequently, the future will remain uncertain. But Saturday afternoon was about survival. The emotions and the crowd noise reached a crescendo in the final games. Del Potro broke Nadal's serve to go up 5-4 and serve for the match. Nadal kept himself alive by breaking del Potro without losing a point. Del Potro then gained a string of three break points, but Nadal kept running, kept sending his spinning ground strokes deep into del Potro's backhand. The Spaniard held serve and went up 6-5.

Preparing to serve, del Potro stood at the baseline line for longer than normal. Perhaps he was thinking not only of the opportunities he had just missed but also of the last Olympics, when he suffered an epic semifinal loss to Federer, 19-17 in the third set.

Then he bounced the ball a few times, tossed and struck a 120 mph serve. Game on. Soon the match was in a sudden-death tiebreaker. The crowd kept at it, with their songs and their chants and boos. Del Potro went for broke. He nosed his way in front, flashing more aggression than his opponent, until Nadal finally pushed one last forehand wide.

A match for the ages was done, and del Potro soon was jumping into the outstretched arms of his adoring fans.

How fitting. They had carried him all day, pushing him forward with a force equal to his forehand.