September 9, 2017
Rafael Nadal was in no mood to take another beating from Juan Martin del Potro after losing their last two encounters.
Instead the King of Clay got mad, changed his tactics, stepped into hard-court overdrive, and won nine games in a row.
That punishing run ripped the heart out of Del Potro, who couldn’t respond as he has in the past.
Rafa’s blend of tactical acumen, brute force and unconquerable spirit left an exhausted Del Potro flailing. Not even his legion of noisy supporters could fuel a comeback.
Nadal won 4-6, 6-0, 6-3, 6-2 – and looks set to win his first Slam away from Roland Garros since 2013 – which also saw him triumph in New York.
If Rafa can beat Kevin Anderson in the final on Sunday, he will move on to a total of 16 Grand Slam singles titles – just three behind the great Roger Federer.
‘It means a lot,’ said Nadal of his passage to the final. ‘To be back here in front of this amazing crowd, on this amazing court, and to have the chance to fight for another title is so important to me.’
In short, the race to be named the greatest player of all time is back on again.
It all looked very different when Rafa kept feeding Delpo’s backhand, and the popular Argentine met the challenge with typical intelligence.
Having won the first set 6-4, however, any freshness in Delpo evaporated. He was struggling partly due to the price he had to pay for earlier grueling victories and lingering illness.
Del Potro explained later: ‘I’m just tired. I’ve felt exhausted since the Dominic Thiem match and the Roger Federer match. I’ve had flu during the week. This is the first time I’ve been dominated by him.’
Maybe it is also the first time Nadal consciously decided to make a mess of Delpo’s superb anticipation.
Rafa suddenly started doing the opposite of what he had done before – and confused his opponent fatally, in terms of the outcome of the match.
Rafa explained: ‘I decided to change a couple of things after the first set. I was playing too much to his backhand and I knew that I had to change and move him more and be more unpredictable.’
This is what Federer failed to do a couple of nights earlier, when Del Potro always seemed to know where the ball was going.
Twenty-five forehand winners later, many sizzling straight down the line, and with forty-five winners under his belt in total, Nadal could look forward to the final against big-serving Kevin Anderson.
The South African nearly beat Novak Djokovic at Wimbledon a few short years back, and he will come out with all guns blazing in the Flushing Meadows showpiece.
But Nadal’s game and his inner steel should in theory prove too much for the underdog.
The fact that the 28th seed from South Africa is the lowest-seeded US Open men’s finalist since seedings began, gives an indication of just how much he is up against it.
After beating Pablo Carreno Busta 4-6, 7-5, 6-3, 6-4, Anderson’s reaction also told us plenty about what he is feeling.
Anderson headed straight to his team for a communal moment of celebration. ‘I don’t know if the team hug was appropriate after the semi-finals, but it felt like the right thing to do,’ he explained.
Fair enough, it is a team achievement in a sense. But if you’re celebrating a semi-final as though you’ve won the tournament, maybe you have already gone as far as you think you can realistically go.
Anderson will need to bring a “nothing-to-lose” attitude to the Nadal match, then mix that up with sheer aggression and genuine ambition. We can’t write him off entirely.
For all that, Rafa should be the one celebrating when all is said and done. And then Federer will have to start looking over his shoulder once more.
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