RIO DE JANEIRO: Rafael Nadal took a step closer to a double gold medal haul at the Rio Olympics on Friday only to find giant Argentine Juan Martin del Potro standing in his way.
Nadal quelled the fierce resistance of Brazilian number one Thomaz Bellucci 2-6, 6-4, 6-2 to reach the semi-finals of the singles where he will take on del Potro in a Saturday blockbuster.
Del Potro, the 2009 US Open champion who was pushed to the brink of retirement by years of wrist trouble, downed Spain’s Roberto Bautista Agut 7-5, 7-6 (7/4) in his quarter-final.
The Argentine, who knocked out world number one Novak Djokovic in the first round, wept in his courtside chair at the end of the quarter-final in which he fired 42 winners.
Defending champion Andy Murray will face Japan’s Kei Nishikori in the other semi-final.
In the women’s singles, Monica Puig made Saturday’s final where she will play for the chance to win Puerto Rico’s first Olympic gold medal.
Later Friday, Nadal will join childhood friend Marc Lopez to face Romania’s Florin Mergea and Horia Tecau in the men’s doubles final.
Victory will allow 2008 champion Nadal to join Serena Williams, Venus Williams and Nicolas Massu as the only players to have won gold in singles and doubles at an Olympics.
“Being at the semi-finals is something that a few days ago I wouldn’t even imagine,” said Nadal, who is playing in his first tournament since the French Open two and half months ago where he suffered an injury to his left wrist.
“I don’t even know how things are going so well because I didn’t do any preparation for the tournament, but I’m playing with a great attitude, fighting to the end.”
Del Potro, meanwhile, has seen his ranking slip from four in the world to 141 after undergoing three surgeries in recent years and missing large parts of the last two seasons.
“Every time I play here, the crowd makes me cry,” said the 2012 bronze medallist who once again enjoyed the support of a legion of football-shirt clad fans.
“It’s a very special moment. Every match for me is like a final.”
Second seed Murray battled through a second successive three-setter to reach the semi-finals with a 6-0, 4-6, 7-6 (7/2) win over Steve Johnson of the United States.
Murray finished with 31 winners but also 36 unforced errors.
He’ll face Nishikori who saved two match points to defeat France’s Gael Monfils 7-6 (7/4), 4-6, 7-6 (8/6). Monfils double-faulted on his second match point in the final set tie-breaker.
“I expected a tough match. The court is very lively, there’s a lot of wind, so it makes it hard to play,” said Murray.
Puig, 22, reached the women’s singles final and is already guaranteed at least a silver — only her country’s ninth medal at a Games.
She reached Saturday’s final by beating two-time Wimbledon champion Petra Kvitova 6-4, 1-6, 6-3 in a rollercoaster match which featured 10 breaks of serve.
Puig, the world number 34, will face either German second seed, and Australian Open champion, Angelique Kerber or American seventh seed Madison Keys for the title.
“It would be unbelievable to win the gold and it would be the biggest honour in the world,” said world number 34 Puig.
“But the Olympics isn’t about me, it’s about Puerto Rico and I know how bad they want this.”
Nadal had planned an assault on three golds in Rio but his gruelling schedule finally caught up with him and he decided to scratch from the mixed doubles with Garbine Muguruza.
Murray is also well-placed for a golden double this weekend.
As well as being in the singles semi-finals, the 29-year-old returns to partner Heather Watson in the mixed doubles last-eight.
The British pair face Sania Mirza and Rohan Bopanna of India.