"In some ways he deserves victory too", a gasping Nadal said after setting up a blockbuster semi-final with Novak Djokovic.
But back came Nadal to level before an enthralling final set which was punctuated by great shot-making and spectacular dives and falls by both players.
The fifth-seeded del Potro failed to convert four match points when serving at 5-4 in the fourth set, but maintained his composure to close out the contest with his first opportunity in the tiebreaker that followed.
While the Federer exit, to South African Kevin Anderson, losing 13-11 in the final set, is what will sadden most viewers and grab what there are of tennis headlines today, Nadal coming from two sets to one down against perennial almost man Juan Martin Del Potro produced perhaps the most awesome tennis of the day, and definitely the moment of the tournament.
Del Potro trailed 1-3 but at 5-5 he fired down a swinging ace to reach match point number five and this time Simon cracked, netting a backhand to the relief of the Argetine who roared his approval. I wanted to stay there for all night long.
The deciding fifth set was a tight battle, but in the fifth game, Nadal got the solitary break to lead 3-2.
As Nadal looks ahead to the semi-finals, Del Potro heads for his next tournament. Del Potro, however, opening his shoulders with his feared forehand and blasting a victor that left Nadal gasping on the baseline - and a set down just short of three hours.
Del Potro fought back, but Nadal held again after the former wasted a break point.
There was a look of glee in Del Potro's sometimes sad eyes, and his lumbering between-points walk had a bit more energy to it. Nadal, struggling to get a solid second serve into hard areas, was de-fanged for long stretches.
"In the end the court was a little bit slippery because the sun goes out and it was humid on the grass", Del Potro added.
It was Del Potro who held sway early in the third, building a 3-2 lead.
That blip was enough for Nadal, chasing an 18th Grand Slam title, to surrender his first set of the championships. Raonic hit 31 aces to Isner's 25 but was broken three times, including in the last game of the match.
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