As Rafa Nadal enjoyed his dinner awaiting the news of his opponent for his semi-final match at this year’s US Open, it must have surprised him to learn that he would be facing Juan Martin del Potro rather than the widely expected Roger Federer, the favourite for Sunday’s title.
It was a huge upset in view of the fact that the big Argentine had suffered a gruelling fourth round five-set encounter against Dominic Thiem whilst recovering from some form of debilitating illness over the previous 48-hours.
I feel I have no place in the semis and he will have a better chance to beat Rafa, to be honest. The way I played or playing right now, it’s not good enough in my opinion to win this tournament. It’s better I’m out and somebody else gets a chance to do better than me Roger Federer
But he obviously recovered well to take out the third seeded Swiss 7-5 3-6 7-6(8) 6-4 in what was an exhilarating night match at the Arthur Ashe Stadium and denying the world the chance to see a Federer v Nadal match at Flushing Meadows for the first time in their lengthy careers.
It was certainly the clash of the day as the big and languid 28-year-old from Tandil, Argentina, deployed his bazooka like forehand and equally powerful serve to fend off the various assaults on his game by the player he beat to earn his 2009 US Open title.
“I played my best match of the tournament,” del Potro said in an on-court interview after his victory. “I did everything well. I served so good and hit my forehand as hard as I can.”
With the match at a set-all, Federer recovered from a 0-3 shortfall in the third and then took a 3-0 lead in the tiebreaker. But del Potro was unperturbed saving four set points before collecting the tie-break and going into a two-sets-to-one lead.
In the fourth it was the Argentine who got the early lead, an advantage he was to keep as he staved off all of the various Federer attacks to take him within sight of a possible second US Open triumph.
And Federer believes following his defeat, that the DelPo Nadal semi-final will be worth watching!
Reflecting on the abrupt end to his US Open run, Federer said: “I played okay in this tournament, but I know I can be better. Rafa and DelPo will be a great match, both have killer forehands.
“I can play better, but worse too, I knew going in I was not in a safe place, I’m out of the tournament and rightfully so.
“I didn’t even think about it, as I lost that match, that [a semi-final with Nadal] is not going to happen. I’m dealing with just trying to understand what happened and just to overcome this in the next few hours, days, weeks.”
As usual the Swiss complimented his conqueror. “Of course it is a pity, but Juan Martin deserves it more.
“I feel I have no place in the semis and he will have a better chance to beat Rafa, to be honest. The way I played or playing right now, it’s not good enough in my opinion to win this tournament.
“It’s better I’m out and somebody else gets a chance to do better than me.”
Earlier in the day Rafa Nadal, the top seed from Spain, was able to warm-up for his prospective mouth-watering semi-final with Federer in what was an intriguing contest between an established and great icon of the sport and a player who is destined for future greatness, Andrey Rublev, 12 years his junior.
Nadal was in control throughout as the Russian teenager threw everything at him but his inexperience was evident as he attempted to bludgeon his way past one of the best retrievers in the world. Nevertheless he showed his potential and despite the one-sided 6-1 6-2 6-2 scoreline, he will have learnt a few lessons from the Spanish Matador in those 96-minutes in what proved to be one of the fastest matches of the fortnight.
Nadal will now have to adjust his thinking as he next faces a man who is on a run, a player who should have been world number one had he not been forced into a series of wrist injuries which denied him several years away from the sport and nearly sent him into retirement.
He trails Nadal 8-5 but DelPo has the psychological advantage of having beaten him in their last two meetings, both on hardcourts, including one at the 2016 Rio Olympics.
“It is true that when he’s playing well, it’s difficult to stop him,” Nadal said of DelPo. “Probably the forehand is maybe the fastest on the tour. If he serves well and hits well his forehand, he’s a player that has a chance to win against, of course, everybody.”
The fans will find it difficult to decide who to support when the two meet on Friday. DelPo’s soft demeanor and languid style make him a favourite of the American crowd as was witnessed on Wednesday night when he delighted them with his blockbuster forehand which was marvelous to watch as he played the kind of tennis which saw him go all the way eight years ago. In that run, he dismissed both Nadal and Federer in the last two matches and is now hoping to emulate that run and join the ranks of come-back players who go on to win grand slams on their return!
Nadal who struggled early in the tournament despite facing non-top 50 players, could well find himself in trouble. Nonetheless he is satisfied, declaring on reaching the last four for the first time in four years: “Only important thing is I am in the semifinals, no?” Nadal said. “The result is positive already. When you start a tournament, what you don’t want is to lose an early round, and then you come back home with the feeling that you didn’t compete. Now the feeling is completely different. I already won five matches.”
When asked what he would be doing during the Federer match, he replied. “I’ll probably have dinner. In Spain we have late dinners but of course it’s a match I want to see and give some attention to.
“They’re two great players and it should be a great show. I will be waiting there in the semi-final, ready to play Roger or Juan.”
Nadal, 31, has enjoyed a fine season after appearing to finally beat his injury problems going on to reach the Australian Open final and claiming his record-breaking tenth French Open title earlier in the year and going on to claim the world number one spot from Andy Murray. Not surprisingly he commented: “This year been an emotional year.
“I’ve been playing very well in almost every tournament after some years with some problems with injuries and not playing so well.
“You appreciate it a lot when you come back and win matches. Six years ago I didn’t think about that so I’m very happy to have this opportunity again.”