WASHINGTON, September 7, 2017 (by Michael Dickens)
Perhaps, ESPN analyst Darren Cahill put it best as soon as Rafael Nadal ended his all-too-brief, 96-minute U.S. Open quarterfinal match against #NextGenATP hopeful Andrey Rublev with a 6-1, 6-2, 6-2 victory in Arthur Ashe Stadium on Wednesday afternoon.
“If you had said to Rafa, ‘We’ll give you a 6-1, 6-2, 6-2 before the match had started,’ he would have said, ‘Where do I sign up for that?'”
Well, the World No. 1 Nadal was consistent and played the match he needed to play in order to secure his sixth U.S. Open semifinal berth and 26th major semifinal overall. He won 84% of his first-serve points (36 of 43) against Rublev – reaching 92% efficiency in the third set – served four aces, and hit 21 winners en route to his one-sided win on Ashe, played with the roof closed. Nadal broke his 19-year-old Russian opponent, who was playing in his first Grand Slam quarterfinal, seven times in 18 tries. Also, Rublev committed 43 unforced errors – the last of them coming on match point when he netted a backhand return.
While it may be debatable how much everyone learned from observing Nadal’s workmanlike manner in beating the 53rd-ranked Rublev – who once called the 31-year-old Spaniard his idol – no doubt, Nadal is happy to be playing in another U.S. Open semifinal on Friday night regardless of who his opponent is. He is only one win away from playing for his third U.S. Open title.
“It was a good match obviously,” said Nadal, during his on-court post-match interview. “I had fun today. Of course (Rublev) played with some mistakes. For me, it was an important victory. I’m just very happy to be in the semifinals, again, in New York. It means a lot to me.”
As the interview neared its conclusion, Nadal broke into a wide grin and clapped his hands in appreciation. “Thank you very much, everybody, for your support,” he said. “It means so much to me.”
Meanwhile, American CoCo Vandeweghe never shies away from performing in front of the big crowds that pack Arthur Ashe Stadium in Flushing Meadow. Although she now resides in California, Vandeweghe’s a New Yorker at heart – and the bigger the stage, the better she plays.
During Wednesday afternoon’s first match, it took just eight minutes for Vandeweghe to assert control of her U.S. Open quarterfinal match against the top seed, Karolina Pliskova. The No. 20 seed broke the World No. 1 in just her second service game, which provided a barometer of things to come.
As it happened, Vandeweghe broke Pliskova a total of three times, took control of the net, and was solid in winning 81% (43 of 53) of her first-serve points. She played first-strike tennis and accurately hit her shots when it mattered the most. After just 1 hour and 24 minutes, the former U.S. Open junior champion became the third U.S. woman to reach this year’s semifinals with a convincing 7-6 (4), 6-3 victory over the beleaguered Pliskova.
“I always dreamed of being on the real big stage,” said the 25-year-old Vandeweghe following the match. “I couldn’t wish for anything more.”
At times, Vandeweghe played an emotionally charged match against Pliskova, 25, from the Czech Republic. She hit 24 winners and out-aced Pliskova 5-2. Both players, it seemed to me, showed an uncanny ability to hit great and powerful shots from odd angles during the match.
Vandeweghe saved a set point in the 10th game of the opening set that was eventually decided by a tie-break that went in her favor. Then, in the decisive set, Vandeweghe broke Pliskova with an angled forehand passing shot that enabled her to push ahead 4-2 – and she never looked back.
Pliskova, a U.S. Open finalist last year, was the only player among the tournament’s top eight seeds to reach the quarterfinals. Now, she will surrender her No. 1 status to Garbiñe Muguruza of Spain, who lost in the fourth round Sunday night, when the new WTA rankings are released at the conclusion of the U.S. Open. Pliskova needed to reach the final to retain her World No. 1 ranking, which she’s held for eight weeks. With the No. 1 seed knocked out, it now leaves No. 9 Venus Williams as the highest remaining seed in the women’s draw. As for Vandeweghe, she is assured of reaching at least No. 15 next week – a new career best – and could go higher if she reaches Saturday’s final.
• News and noteworthy: By reaching the U.S. Open semifinals, 37-year-old Venus Williams will return to the WTA Top 5 for the first time since January 2011. The two-time U.S. Open champion – the only Grand Slam champion left in the women’s draw – was pushed to the brink during her three-set quarterfinal against Petra Kvitova on Tuesday night. However, with her 6-3, 3-6, 7-6 (2) win, Williams advanced to her 23rd major semifinal of her career – and it’s her fourth semifinal in her last six majors. Next, the No. 9 seed Williams will face unseeded American Sloane Stephens, who defeated No. 16 seed Anastasija Sevatsova of Latvia, 6-3, 3-6, 7-6 (4) in a quarterfinal on Tuesday.
“Sometimes you have opportunities and sometimes you take them and sometimes you don’t,” said Williams during her post-match press conference, “but it’s not like you get opportunity after opportunity after opportunity in these sorts of matches. You have to take the ones you have. I was happy to have a little more luck today, actually.”
• Late night at the Open: No. 28 seed Kevin Anderson of South Africa reached his first Grand Slam semifinal with his 7-6 (5), 6-7 (9), 6-3, 7-6 (7) win over the last American man standing, No. 17 seed Sam Querrey, in the early hours of Wednesday morning. It was Anderson’s first time playing on Arthur Ashe Stadium – and he made it a memorable one, even if there weren’t many still watching in person by the time the match ended well after 1:30 a.m. The fourth-set tie-break was a gut-check for both players, full of memorable and dramatic points. Following his victory, Anderson’s tweeted his reaction in one word: “Speechless.” That kind of says it all, doesn’t it? By the afternoon, Anderson was more verbal, tweeting: “Still sinking in! Thanks to the fans who stayed late last night in NYC and everyone for your support. Excited to keep going.”
Anderson, who is the first South African to reach a Grand Slam singles semifinal in 14 years – and the first from his country to reach a U.S. Open semifinal – will face No. 12 seed Pablo Carreño Busta of Spain. Anderson owns a 2-0 head-to-head advantage against Carreño Busta. On Sunday afternoon, one of those two players will be playing in their first Grand Slam final. Impossible? Maybe. Improbable? Not necessarily. Both are playing solid tennis this fortnight and taking advantage of their respective opportunities. Not to look too far ahead, but … The last South African who appeared in a Grand Slam final? Kevin Curren, Wimbledon, 1985.
About the author:
Michael Dickens is a Washington, D.C.-based freelance journalist who writes and blogs about tennis.