Preview: Will Rafa's Grueling Run Be A Factor Against Delpo?
When three break points on Dominic Thiem’s serve went begging deep in a climactic fifth set of the US Open quarter-finals on Wednesday, Rafael Nadal struggled to suppress a bad sense of déjà vu. The very best don’t let these tight contests slip their grasp too often.
After all, these are the matches a champion comes to expect. But the World No. 1 couldn’t help thinking back to July.
Four times on Wimbledon’s Centre Court, he could have stepped up to serve for a place in the final. Each time, though, Novak Djokovic had an answer. The revitalised Serbian would eventually go on to seal the match after five hours and 15 minutes and a day later, a fourth Wimbledon trophy.
As his quarter-final epic against Thiem neared the five-hour mark, and after conceding the opening set 6-0, the defending US Open champion was in the grips of an astonishing contest. Somehow, as the clock passed 2am, he found a way, withstanding a barrage of winners from the Austrian to book a semi-final showdown with a familiar rival, Juan Martin Del Potro.
“I played a lot of long and tough matches in my career. That's one more today,” Nadal said of beating Thiem. “I lost in Wimbledon a match like this, today was for me… The personal satisfaction when you give everything and you play with the right attitude is the same.
“I’m very happy to be in the semi-finals. But being honest, after Wimbledon, I was happy about my attitude and my match there. When you win or when you lose like this, you come back home with the feeling that you did all the things that you can do.”
The man across from him on Friday can relate. Robbed of years during his prime due to wrist injuries, Del Potro has done everything in his power just to be back competing. He has endured all the things you can imagine to get there.
After clinching his maiden ATP World Tour Masters 1000 title in Indian Wells this year, where he saved a championship point against Federer, Del Potro was again being talked about as a genuine contender for more of the big titles.
His quarter-final victim on Wednesday, John Isner, believed this was some of the best he had seen from the Argentine. Standing at a career-high No. 3 in the ATP Rankings, this could be his strongest chance yet at adding to his lone US Open title from 2009.
Nadal and Del Potro have battled 16 times previously. Nadal leads that FedEx ATP Head2Head ledger 11-5. They met at this stage 12 months ago, where after dropping the first set, Nadal cantered to the finish line and two days later, to the title.
They have met once previously at this stage in New York, a contest which a then 20-year-old Del Potro claimed in straight sets before seeing off Roger Federer in a spectacular fashion to clinch that maiden Grand Slam title. This will be Del Potro’s and Nadal’s fourth meeting from the past five majors.
The Argentine’s most recent triumph over the Spaniard came in the 2016 Olympic Games semi-finals in Rio de Janeiro. And while he has never beaten Nadal in a best-of-five-set match since his 2009 US Open victory, there is one factor, which could play into his favour this time round – mileage left in the tank.
Nadal needed four hours and 23 minutes to hold off Russia’s Karen Khachanov in the third round and four hours, 49 minutes to stifle Dominic Thiem’s upset bid in the quarter-finals. Del Potro, by contrast, has dropped just one set all tournament, to Isner.
“It could be another big battle as the Wimbledon match was,” Del Potro said, after Nadal prevailed in an epic five-set quarter-final at SW19 in July. “Of course, I like to play always with the No. 1 of the world, doesn't matter the tournament or the conditions or the weather. I just have the chance to play the greatest on this sport, and it's amazing for me.”
Much like his opponent on Friday, Del Potro is at a point in his career where the hunger for the big prizes still burns. But the satisfaction comes as much from being fit and healthy once again, and knowing you’ve left it all out court.
“I think it doesn't matter the final result in the tournament,” Del Potro said. “I’m just enjoying playing tennis again. I'm enjoying a lot the crowds like this. I like to play big battles with other guys. That makes me feel alive again.
“After all my problems, I think it's time to celebrate these kinds of things. I love this sport. I love the competition. I'm very proud to be here again.”