September 5, 2018
There was no need to apologise. Not after four hours and 49 minutes of piercing arrows and pure theatre. But Rafael Nadal did so anyway.
He jumped over the net to console his heartbroken friend, Dominic Thiem and told him: ‘I’m very, very sorry. Keep going.’
That’s exactly what Thiem had done after his own explosive start. Yet all that effort and sweat still wasn’t enough.
‘This is going to be stuck in my mind forever,’ Thiem claimed later. ‘Tennis can be cruel.’
Nadal’s fighting spirit had finally helped him overcome the 25-year-old at 2.03am local time in New York.
But when the match began the previous evening, the Spanish champion was caught cold by the Austrian’s utter brilliance.
The world number one suffered the embarrassment of a dreaded bagel as Thiem sent down a barrage of aces and bludgeoning blows from both sides.
Few players could have regained their composure so quickly, before clawing their way back to level sets. Rafa did.
Thiem wasn’t finished, though. He served for the third set at 5-4, and he had two chances for a double break to go 4-1 in the fourth. Belatedly he claimed it, but at what final cost to his energy reserves?
Rafa ultimately had the winning edge, giving a superior demonstration of nerve and power when it mattered.
He even subdued his adversary with deft drop shots when we least expected it.
As Tuesday became Wednesday, the battle was far from done. Thiem won the first tie-break after getting off to another flyer.
But he lost the crucial one to a wayward smash, full of fatigue. And that overhead will haunt him for some time, judging by his own post-match analysis.
Nadal progressed 0-6, 6-4, 7-5, 6-7 (4-7), 7-6 (7-5). He goes on to face Juan Martin del Potro, and perhaps then Novak Djokovic for the title.
As the 32-year-old Rafa reminded Thiem so quickly, there is plenty of time for him to go on and win Slams.
But maybe not while Nadal is still on the other side of the net.
So why was Nadal able to overcome Thiem in a bruising five-setter in New York but not Djokovic at Wimbledon?
One reason was that Thiem’s work at the net didn’t live up to the rest of his game.
Djokovic rarely ventured forward against Nadal at Wimbledon. But when he did, he made it count.
It would be fascinating to see another Nadal v Djokovic classic in New York, and that’s the way it could be shaping up.
Of course, we have already made the mistake of writing off John Millman, something you clearly do at your peril. Djokovic will know that now and the knowledge should see him through.
Then either Kei Nishikori or Marin Cilic would be waiting.
And Juan Martin del Potro will be another formidable semi-finalist for Nadal, after his exciting win over John Isner. Yet Rafa usually has the mental edge there.
Meanwhile Serena Williams will need to be at her very best to negotiate a US Open semi-final successfully for the first time since 2014.
Williams has correctly pointed out that she is ‘playing freely’ at Flushing Meadows, an encouraging sign.
And Serena also stated that she has nothing to prove after having a baby relatively recently. Right again.
If she can maintain that mindset and avoid tightening, we will continue to see the best of her.
It was an impressive 6-4, 6-3 win over Karolina Pliskova, especially after Serena trailed 2-4 in the first.
The huge crowd helped her turn things round – and now another historic title beckons.
But semi-final stage is where her nerves have kicked in before in New York, and where the weight of expectation and pressure on the favourite starts to hit home.
And she fully admits that she is starting to run out of time to win more Slams.
If Serena really can continue to enjoy the adventure, she can take the title.
If not, she might buckle under the strain once more, against a quality opponent in Anastasija Sevastova. She defeated Sloane Stephens with ease, yet has no pressure on her whatsoever.
Again, the challenge will be fascinating. Most of all, perhaps, the one between Serena and Serena herself.