Once Rafael Nadal went from passive to aggressive and got his uppercut of a forehand going, it didn’t take long for him to power into the U.S. Open final.
Closing in on a third title at Flushing Meadows and 16th Grand Slam championship overall, Nadal overcame a so-so start with an overwhelming performance the rest of the way Friday night, taking nine games in a row during one stretch to beat 2009 champion Juan Martin del Potro 4-6, 6-0, 6-3, 6-2 in the semifinals.
“He played so smart from the second set until the end of the match,” del Potro said. “He was dominant.”
It was Nadal’s 15th straight victory in a Grand Slam semifinal since del Potro beat him in 2009 at Flushing Meadows.
The Spaniard is in his third major final of the year. He also won the French Open in June and will have a huge edge in experience against Anderson, a first-time Grand Slam finalist.
No. 1 Nadal will be a significant favourite Sunday against No. 32 Kevin Anderson of South Africa, who beat Pablo Carreno Busta 4-6, 7-5, 6-3, 6-4 to become the lowest-ranked U.S. Open finalist since the ATP’s computer rankings began in 1973.
Nadal is back
Nadal looked as good as ever over the last three sets against del Potro, further confirmation of his return to the height of his powers. Nadal is again healthy and capable of excellence, after wrist and knee injuries dulled his effectiveness in 2015 and 2016 — the first seasons since 2004 in which he not only failed to win a Grand Slam trophy but didn’t even make a final.
Match Wrap: Rafael Nadal dominates his way to U.S Open Final1:57
“It’s been an amazing season, of course, after a couple of years with some troubles, injuries, tough moments,” Nadal said. “So this year, since the beginning has been a very emotional year.”
He reached the Australian Open final in January, losing to Roger Federer, then claimed his record 10th French Open championship in June.
Save for a less-than-dominant opening set Friday, in which Nadal had nine winners and 10 unforced errors, he barely missed his targets. His numbers the rest of the way: 36 winners, 10 unforced errors.
Del Potro runs out of gas
Eventually, Del Potro’s flat, fearsome forehand became less dangerous, as if he suddenly remembered just how weary he was.
“He was playing all the time to my backhand, and when you don’t have that confidence to play three, four hours with a good backhand against Rafa, it’s just a matter of time,” del Potro said.
Dealing with an illness, del Potro came back from a two-set deficit to win his fourth-rounder in five sets, then got past 19-time major champion Federer in the quarter-finals in four. Maybe it was all too much for del Potro, whose one Grand Slam title came via wins over Nadal in the semifinals and Federer in the final in New York eight years ago.
That was the last time Nadal lost in a major semifinal; he’s now won 15 in a row. This time, the 24th-seeded del Potro actually edged ahead with the match’s first break, going up 3-2 in the first set when a backhand return caught the net tape and took a fortuitous roll over to Nadal’s side for a winner.
That was greeted with a chorus of “Ole, ole, ole, ole! Del-po! Del-po!” for the popular Argentine, who would serve out that set, punctuating it with a forehand.
There was very little Juan Martin del Potro could do against Nadal. (Abbie Parr/Getty Images)
Maybe that woke up Nadal, who wouldn’t again relinquish a game until he owned the second set and a 3-0 lead in the third. The next time del Potro served, Nadal finally earned his first break point with some fantastic defence, throwing himself to his left to somehow get back one massive forehand from del Potro, who — perhaps stunned that ball came back — sent his next forehand long.
By now, Nadal was pulling his own intimidating, topspin-lathered forehand up the line and attacking whenever del Potro left a ball short.
It was quickly clear that the only doubt remaining was what the final score would be.
“Just the fight to be in the final, and have a chance to fight for another title here, is so important for me,” Nadal said.
Anderson advances to 1st Grand Slam final
No matter his age, no matter his ranking and results, no matter his injuries, Kevin Anderson kept trying to improve, and now comes the payoff: his first Grand Slam final.
Taking full advantage of a depleted draw, Anderson became the lowest-ranked U.S. Open finalist since the ATP’s computer rankings began in 1973, getting to the title match by beating Pablo Carreno Busta 4-6, 7-5, 6-3, 6-4 on Friday.
Match Wrap: Kevin Anderson advances to U.S Open Final1:40
Anderson was so excited that he celebrated his semifinal victory as if it made him the champion, stepping on a chair and then a flower box to help him climb into his guest box in the stands.
“I don’t know if it’s appropriate,” said Anderson, a 31-year-old South African who won an NCAA doubles title at the University of Illinois. “It certainly felt the right thing to do.”
Hip, leg and elbow injuries caused him to miss time this season. Ankle surgery, plus left knee, right shoulder and groin injuries were problems last year.
Injuries open up opportunity
He is appearing in his 34th major tournament. He is ranked 32nd, but was seeded 28th at Flushing Meadows, thanks to withdrawals by several top players, including past champions Novak Djokovic, Andy Murray and Stan Wawrinka.
“It’s nice that some of them gave us a bit of a shot to make a run in this tournament,” Anderson said.
He only once had been as far as the quarter-finals at a Grand Slam tournament until this week, losing at that stage in New York two years ago. Before that, he had been 0-7 in fourth-rounders at majors.
Kevin Anderson, above, defeated Pablo Carreno Busta 4-6, 7-5, 6-3, 6-4 to advance to his first Grand Slam singles final. (Elsa/Getty Images)
The 6-foot-8 (2.03-metre) Anderson is a big server, but it was his success returning against the 12th-seeded Carreno Busta that was the key to this victory. After failing to get a break point in the opening set, Anderson generated 14 the rest of the way — and converted four, which was enough for the biggest victory of his career.
Anderson is 0-4 against Nadal.
Nadal has won the U.S. Open twice, in 2010 and 2013. He owns 15 major titles in all, second only to Federer’s 19.
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