Del Potro reaches first RG semi-final in nine years

 - Sarah Edworthy

Argentine overcomes No.3 seed Marin Cilic to advance to the semi-finals in Paris for the first time since 2009.

In the battle between the two 6'6" former Grand Slam champions, Juan Martin Del Potro advanced to his second career Roland-Garros semi-final - and his first for nine years - after beating Marin Cilic of Croatia 7-6(5) 5-7 6-3 7-5 on Thursday.

The Argentine - who was a semi-finalist here in 2009, the same year he was crowned US Open champion, and who missed four consecutive years in Paris from 2013 to 2016 through injury - emerged the victor after rain stopped play on Wednesday night with the score standing at 6-6 (5-5). The win - which took three hours and 50 minutes to secure, and was not without the drama befitting an atmosphere on Court Suzanne-Lenglen which sounded as if it had been transplanted from a football stadium - left Del Petro in tears.

“It’s tough to speak now,” he said through sobs on court. “I have had three surgeries on my left wrist and I was close to quitting. This is so good for my team and my family. It was very important to have the support of my family and friends and the love of you guys, you make me so happy. I am so proud to be playing tennis. I feel at home here. Merci beaucoup.”

Rather more collected later, he explained he had never expected to be in the top five again or to reach the semifinals at a big tournament, “but now it's time to talk about my present in a good way. All the tougher moments of my life are completely in the past.”

Del Potro and Cilic inspire passionate followers who cranked up the thrill factor in a Grand Slam quarter-final in which every point seemed to carry significance. On paper, very little separated these two baseline powerhouses except a head-to-head record heavily weighted in Del Potro’s favour (10-2). It was the No.3 seed Cilic against the No.5 seed Del Potro. Both men are 29, and own one US Open championship trophy apiece (Del Potro in 2009, Cilic more recently in 2014). Both were playing to reach a fifth Grand Slam semi-final, and, to do that, both would have to end losing streaks against top-ranked opposition on clay.

The parity of the score when play resumed on Thursday at 5-5 in the tiebreak meant there would be a swift answer to the question of who would be the first to make a breakthrough. It was Del Petro, winning two points to go a set up. “It was very important to win the first one,” he acknowledged. “It wasn't a good night because I was thinking too much, where could I serve, T or wide? I asked too many questions of myself. But then I got lucky to win the first set, playing two good points and that was enough to replay a new match after the first set.”

Del Potro, who likes to keep points short and hit flat, was playing a safer game than Cilic. The Croat set up more purist-pleasing points – wrong-footing his opponent, use the drop shot with finesse – but also started to incur a huge tally of unforced errors. Del Potro couldn’t find his winners but that was compensated by his opponent’s nerviness and hastiness when going for the winner on big points.

In the first set, all was evenly-matched until the ninth game when the Argentine double-faulted on break point, having been distracted by a hissing spectator, and Cilic was handed the advantage. Del Potro walked towards the offending spectator, staring him out, before talking to the chair umpire and throwing his racquet on the ground. Del Potro broke back immediately, Cilic followed suit, and the Croat served out to level the score at one set apiece.

The incident seemed to rattle both players. Del Potro couldn’t find his legendary forehand (amazingly, after two hours and 43 minutes, he had only notched up one forehand winner). Cilic broke serve in the first game of the third set, but somehow Del Potro found himself up two breaks and serving to take the set 6-3. The fourth set reverted to the predictable pattern, going with serve, until Del Potro earned himself three break points, took the first opportunity and then served out to love to win the match – earning that treasured semi-final berth.

The win sets up a testing semi-final with Rafael Nadal, his pre-tournament favourite. “I still continue to think the same thing. And in two years, I will continue thinking the same thing because Rafa has lost two matches here in his whole life. Because of the way he is, his fitness and the way he plays, he's the king of the tournament. But it's always a pleasure playing him in a Grand Slam," Del Potro said.

"These are unique moments, and many players would like to have this opportunity. We have to enjoy the moment, and I will try to enjoy it tomorrow.”