In a clash of the former champions, 2010 and 2013 champion Rafael Nadal meets with 2009 winner Juan Martin del Potro with a place in the final on the line. The match, last on Arthur Ashe, has all the ingredients of a thriller. Both men play exciting tennis and are fan favourites. To reach the final in New York would be huge for both of them, albeit for different reasons. But who will come through for another shot at glory in the Big Apple?
Nadal and Del Potro have met 13 times so far in their careers. Nadal leads the head-to-head 8-5, a slight, but not insignificant advantage. The first match came 10 years ago in Miami and was won easily by Nadal in straight sets 6-0 6-4. They played twice more that year, at Roland Garros and Queen’s Club, with Nadal winning both clashes in straight sets. They didn’t cross paths in 2008 but made up it for with four meetings in 2009. Nadal won the first, recording his fourth straights sets win in the Indian Wells quarter-finals, but thereafter it was Del Potro’s year. The big Argentine beat Nadal in the quarters in Toronto in three sets, before destroying him at the US Open in the semi-finals. Nadal won just six games in what remains his most one-sided Grand Slam defeat.
Injuries kept Del Potro out of 2010, but on his return in 2011 he played Nadal three times and lost three times. That included thrilling matches at Wimbledon in the fourth round and in the Davis Cup final which Spain won. Nadal then denied Del Potro his first Masters 1000 title in Indian Wells, rallying from a set down to win in three in 2013. But Del Potro revenged himself in Shanghai, delaying Nadal’s bid to ascend to the top of the rankings with a dominant straight sets win. After Del Potro missed 2014 and 2015 with another wrist injury, their next meeting was delayed until 2016. That match, also their most recent, came in the semi-finals at the Rio Olympics. Del Potro, having already knocked out Novak Djokovic, did the same to Nadal, winning a final set tie break to reach the gold medal match.
Nadal’s path to the semi-final
Nadal, the top seed in New York, began his campaign against Dusan Lajovic. The Serbian actually made the faster start, breaking Nadal early and served for the first set. But two net cords saw him go 0-30 down and Nadal took advantage to break. Though Lajovic held on to reach a tie break when he lost that the writing was on the wall and he won just four more games. Nadal then clashed with Taro Daniel, a New York born Japanese. Daniel played excellently in the first set and won it 6-4. But Nadal’s forehand began to fire and he reeled off the next three sets 6-3 6-2 6-2. Another slow start cost him the first set against Argentina’s Leonardo Mayer. He failed to convert his first 11 break points but when he at last broke through, he powered away to reach the fourth round.
In the fourth round, Nadal faced Alexandr Dolgopolov of Ukraine. Nadal began brightly this time, wrapping up the first set 6-2. When a late break sealed the second set the Ukrainian’s resistance faltered, and he won only one game in the third, exiting the tournament to a 2-6 4-6 1-6 defeat. Nadal was in a similarly ruthless mood against Russian teenager Andrey Rublev, who was contesting his first Major quarter-final. Against Nadal, he was badly outmatched, and he could make little impression on the great Spaniard. Nadal came through 6-1 6-2 6-2 to reach the semi-finals in New York for the first time since 2013.
Del Potro’s path to the semi-final
Del Potro, seeded 24th, began in New York against Henri Laaksonen of Switzerland. The Argentine won the first two sets in tie breaks before a solitary break earned him the win in the third. This was followed by straight sets wins over Spaniards Adrián Menéndez-Maceiras in the second round and Roberto Bautista Agut in the third. In the fourth round he came up against sixth seed Dominic Thiem, and what followed was arguably the match of the tournament so far. Thiem took the first two sets at a canter against an ill-looking Del Potro. But after a visit from the tournament doctor before the start of the third, the Argentine looked a man reborn. He raced through the third set, winning it 6-1. He broke early in the fourth and with the vocal backing of the crowd looked in excellent shape.
But Thiem broke back, and then broke again to silence the crowd. Serving for the match the contest looked finished, but Del Potro roared back into contention to break back and stay alive. He then saved two match points with aces when serving to stay in it down 5-6. He reached the safety of a tie break and dominated it to set up a decider. Del Potro pushed for a break throughout but Thiem resisted him bravely, including saving three straight break points. He denied Del Potro on a match point down 4-5, but a bold attempt to save another with a second serve ace backfired as he missed by millimetres to send the Argentine into the quarter-finals.
Del Potro then faced off against Roger Federer in New York for the first time since their epic clash in the final eight years ago. Neither man played as well as they did in that match, but Del Potro had enough to see off a slightly out of sorts Federer. After splitting the first two sets, a third set tie break was key. Del Potro saved four set points before taking it with his first. That effectively settled the affair as Del Potro broke Federer in the fourth. He held on to return to the US Open semi-finals for the first time since his incredible title run in 2009.
How do they match up?
Both men have games centred around two of the best forehands in tennis. But beyond that similarity they are very different players. Nadal is one of the best defenders on tour. Along with Novak Djokovic and Andy Murray, he has revolutionised the way players defend. He is able to both retrieve and stay alive from deep and trade from up on the baseline. His game has also improved this year under the tutelage of Carlos Moya, who has encouraged Nadal to go for more with his backhand. This had led Nadal to strike the ball harder and flatter from that wing. Del Potro, in contrast, is not one of the better movers on tour and his backhand has lacked strength after wrist injuries.
Despite that, the ‘Tower of Tandil’ remains a wrecking ball of a player. The reason for that is a forehand that, in terms of power, makes everyone else on tour look like they’re playing with broken racquet strings. His forehand may lack the topspin of Nadal’s and the elegance of Federer’s but when he starts to dictate with it, he can punch through any defence in tennis. Against Nadal, he will need to. The only way Del Potro can win the match is by keeping most of the rallies short and dominating with his forehand. He will also have to continue to serve well. Nadal is the weakest returner of the Big Four so the Argentine will have some joy if he can hit his spots with his first serve.
For all of Del Potro’s offensive qualities, Nadal’s defence should see him through this match. How much Del Potro has left in him after his exploits against Thiem and Federer is also uncertain. Nadal, in contrast, raced through his fourth round and quarter-final matches and should be fresh. And though Del Potro does defend his weak backhand well, Nadal’s topspin forehand cross-court may well be too much for the Argentine to handle. Del Potro has no shortage of New York magic but against Nadal it will run out. The Spaniard to reach the final in four.
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