The English language is endlessly fascinating. On a memorable Wimbledon Wednesday defined by two gripping five-setters, it is only appropriate that the word “fifth” works its way to the forefront of our exploration.
In America, “taking the fifth” is most normally a reference to the Fifth Amendment of the United States Constitution. A witness takes or pleads “the fifth” in order to avoid being a witness against him/herself. Witnesses refuse to answer on the grounds that an answer might incriminate them.
Taking THE fifth is commonly referred to as a legal maneuver. Taking A fifth refers to imbibing a specific amount of whiskey. How fascinating is it that the word “fifth” has multiple uses beyond the number itself, and how equally fascinating it is that the difference between “the” and “a” can be so profound?
Wednesday at Wimbledon, everyone wanted to be a witness to the five-setters which unfolded on separate courts. A lot of those spectators very probably wanted to help themselves to a fifth of whiskey in the latter stages of the proceedings.
In the end, “taking the fifth” received a separate, additional application removed from the legal arena… or to be even more precise, two new applications.
Rafael Nadal took the fifth in the sense that he won the fifth set of his Wimbledon quarterfinal against Juan Martin del Potro. When Delpo made several concerted efforts to break Nadal’s serve late in set five, Rafa did not let go of the fifth. He took it with brave play, usually by steering Delpo around the court, one time with a defensive get which made del Potro hit an extra ball… which the Argentine missed on break point. Both men could point to one or two shots that got away from them, but when a majority of points were spectacular in the fifth set and an extremely high percentage points were won with workmanlike quality, it was unreasonable — if not impossible — for either player to think he failed.
This was not a fifth set marked by failure. The previous sets (Nadal double faulting on set point in set two, then losing focus at the end of set three) turned on the basis of one player’s shortcomings, but the last two sets, particularly the soaring crescendo of a fifth stanza, were built on a foundation of excellence.
Nadal took that fifth set as the winner of the match, yes… but in a larger sense, both men took that fifth. They latched onto a moment — and each other (during the set as fierce competitors, after it ended as sportsmen with the highest levels of respect for each other). They claimed a small patch of fabled lawn, the most famous court in tennis, and made it their own in that final set. They turned a meandering and sometimes uneven drama and lifted it to a great height at its endpoint. If Roger Federer and Kevin Anderson forged a fifth set which became burned into the historical memory of Wimbledon for a great many years, Delpo and Nadal did the same… and probably a little better.
No, saying that set five of Rafa-Delpo eclipsed Fed-Kando is not due to the fact that Nadal won while Federer lost. Rafa-Delpo didn’t exceed Fed-Kando’s very high standard because it was stylistically different. Ultimately, this set between Nadal and del Potro was the best set of ATP tennis in 2018 because the effort put forth by both competitors was so evident and complete.
It is a well-known point of tennis IQ that if diving is to occur in a match, it has to occur on grass. The scratchy surface of clay and especially the unforgiving solidity of hardcourts are terrible landing areas for players. A soft and green grass — in an era when net play is extremely rare — gives players a cushion on any attempts to dive at a volley or lunge for a passing shot. If there is ever a time to dive, grass matches give players that option.
For a period of time in the fifth set, it seemed that del Potro was diving to the ground to rescue points in every game he played. On one of the occasions when he made a full dive to his right, he nailed a volley the way a World Cup goalkeeper would dive to a shot, punching the ball away.
This wasn’t an exhibition of purpose-free diving, the way Justin Gimelstob often displayed with his mindless tumbles to a hardcourt. This wasn’t theatrical diving akin to the way Neymar performs on grass. The diving, straining, stretching and sprinting involved in the fifth set (and portions of the fourth) in Nadal-del Potro carried great significance and value. The all-out effort of both players often reset points or turned defensive positions into stolen points. It took shots outside the doubles alleys and redirected them back at sharp angles. The effort which poured forth from both men absorbed screaming groundstrokes and led to dazzling cat-and-mouse exchanges at net which were completed with lucid chess moves and agile putaways.
Effort translating into excellence — this was the central theme of the final set. Nadal kept striking first, Delpo kept answering, Nadal kept feeling the pressure of the opponent across the net, and Nadal walked over the coals to make the finish line first.
The 10th anniversary of Federer-Nadal at Wimbledon has unleashed tidal waves of nostalgia about the 2008 men’s final. The mythic aura surrounding that match flows in large measure from its zenith, the moments when the quality and the drama both reached an extraordinarily lofty elevation late in the fourth and throughout the fifth set. The magic of that moment is precisely what makes fans recall where they were when the magic was magnified.
Very simply, the fifth set of Nadal-Delpo on Wednesday at Wimbledon reminded everyone watching of that kind of mountaintop experience. The tennis, the drama, the effort, the stakes, the setting — they all merged to form an instantly special memory.
Nadal walks away as the man with a victory and a first Wimbledon semifinal in 2011. Nadal will play Novak Djokovic in a major semifinal for the first time since the 2013 French Open. He will face Djokovic at a major for the first time since the 2015 French Open. All those realities are important and exciting and newsworthy… but if they make tennis fans giddy, they won’t make fans as giddy as they were when watching the fifth set of Nadal-Delpo on Wednesday at Wimbledon.
“Taking the fifth” has never been so life-transporting.
A vintage Wimbledon day gave tennis fans an enormous gift, and the fifth set of Rafa-Delpo was the greatest present of them all.