WASHINGTON, September 9, 2017 (by Michael Dickens)
World No. 1 Rafael Nadal can inflict pain on an opponent as good as anyone in the game of tennis. Over a stretch of nine games that began with the start of the second set of his U.S. Open semifinal against No. 24 seed Juan Martin del Potro and didn’t end until 47 minutes later, for all intent and purpose, Friday night’s match was over by the middle of the third set. By then, Nadal was in total domination of his Argentine opponent. Sadly, a public beating had broken out in Arthur Ashe Stadium and there were more than 22,000 witnesses to it.
To the surprise of few, Nadal advanced to Sunday afternoon’s U.S. Open final with an impressive 4-6, 6-0, 6-3, 6-2 win over the tired and overmatched del Potro. He was strong to the very last shot. Next, the top-seeded Spaniard will go after his third U.S. Open title against the surprising No. 28 seed Kevin Anderson of South Africa, who beat Pablo Carreño Busta, 4-6, 7-5, 6-3, 6-4, to reach his first Grand Slam final. In doing so, Anderson became the first South African player to reach the U.S. Open men’s final since Cliff Drysdale in 1965.
After losing the first set 6-4 – something which he’s done in half of his six matches during this U.S. Open – Nadal rebounded with a 6-0 bagel against del Potro that evened the match. His blistering forehand went to work against the Argentine, who did his best to withstand Nadal’s assault by hitting some powerful forehand returns himself. While del Potro put an end to the Spaniard’s nine-game winning streak by holding serve in the fourth game of the third set, and began to mount a small comeback, one had to ask if he would be able to recover? The answer was no.
“I was not playing bad in the first set, but I was playing too much to his backhand,” said Nadal during an on-court interview with ESPN after his victory. “Then, in the second set, I knew something had to change.I made the changes I had to and it worked for me.”
As the match grew older, Nadal got stronger and remained relentless in winning the third set 6-3, and he remained in control at the outset of the fourth set. He hit both his blistering forehands and two-fisted backhands with great intensity and placed them out of del Potro’s reach time and time again. Although Delpo never cried No más, you had to strart to wonder how much he could endure after his all-out fourth-round victory over Dominic Thiem on Monday evening, followed by his emotional win over Roger Federer late Wednesday night. Apparently, not very much.
Soon, Nadal closed out the 30-minute final set and the two hour and 30 minute match with a solid backhand winner, his 45th winner of the match. He won 77% of his first-serve points (65 of 90) and backed it up with sold play at the net by winning 21 of 27 opportunities. He broke del Potro six times in 13 tries and outpointed him 109-76. The Gentle Giant served just seven aces, doubled faulted four times, and won just 9 of 32 second-serve points. He committed 40 unforced errors.
— Rafa Nadal (@RafaelNadal) 9. September 2017
Added up, Nadal has reached three Grand Slam finals this year for the first time since 2011 after being shutout in Grand Slams in 2015 and 2016.
“I’m very happy for me to be back here in front of this amazing crowd,” said Nadal, warming to the applause of his many fans. “To be in the final and have a chance to fight for another final, I thank everyone for their energy and support.”
With his latest victory, which was his 15th straight in a Grand Slam semifinal, Nadal improved his career win-loss record at the U.S. Open to 52-10.
Anderson Into Maiden Grand Slam Final
During the undercard to the Nadal-del Potro slugfest, Anderson came out tight and nervous against No. 12 Carreño Busta. The Spaniard capitalized on a service break against his tall and angular opponent during the seventh game and won the first set 6-4, which extended his streak of consecutive sets won during the U.S. Open to 16. While the South African could be forgiven for dropping the first set – after all, he was appearing in his first Grand Slam semifinal – something happened that changed the tenor of the match.
From the second set going forward, Anderson turned up the volume on his game, and as the match evolved over the next two sets, he began to loosen up and enjoy himself on court. He acknowledged all of the positive shots he started to hit and began to look comfortable playing in just his second career match in Arthur Ashe Stadium.
Meanwhile, it was the steadiness of Carreño Busta that began to be challenged. As it happened, Anderson, ranked 32nd in the world, became the lowest-ranked U.S. Open singles finalist since the inception of the ATP rankings in 1973, when he beat Carreño Busta to advance to Sunday’s final against Nadal.
Anderson fired 22 service aces and doubled faulted just once. While placing 69% of his first serves (71 of 103) in play, he won 83% of his first-serve points (59 of 71), controlled the net by winning 26 of 36 opportunities and hit 58 winners. He converted four of 14 break points against Carreño Busta while saving two of four break points he faced. Anderson outpointed Carreño Busta 137-110.
Looking back, the past 18 months have been anything but enjoyable for Anderson, derailed by a variety of injuries that sidelined him. However, the time off the ATP World Tour allowed him to step back and re-evaluate his career priorities and make some personal changes. Since, Wimbledon, he’s reached two finals – last month at the Citi Open in Washington, D.C. and now the U.S. Open.
In between the third and fourth sets, ESPN analysts Brad Gilbert and Darren Cahill shared a meaningful talking point about the 31-year-old South African that lent a lot of perspective. Gilbert said of Anderson, “He looked inside himself and became a better player.” Cahill added, “The real change is going to happen within. He’s taken responsibility of his career and decided to stick with his team.” That includes his traveling coach since 2014, Neville Godwin, and his psychologist Alexis Castorri.
In a New York Times interview this week, Anderson told tennis writer Ben Rothenberg, “People always say how it’s mental, a lot of tennis. We can all hit shots, so you try to find the right formula that allows you to play the best tennis. Being a bit more vocal, and bringing more energy, is something that – even though it wasn’t natural for me – it allows me to play better tennis. It’s something that’s getting more comfortable.”
Finally, at the two-hour and 49-minute mark of the match, Anderson served with an opportunity to play in his first U.S. Open final riding on the outcome. He was ready for the challenge, setting up match point nicely at 40-15 with a forehand smash winner, his 58th winner of the match. Then, it was all over on the next point when Carreño Busta hit a forehand into the net. Overjoyed, Anderson broke into an ear-to-ear grin and raised his hands over his six-foot-eight-inch frame in celebration clutching his white cap in his right hand. Then, very spur-of-the-moment, he made his way toward his box and continued celebrating, climbing up into it to personally thank his coach and team – and without missing a beat, he shared a kiss with his wife, Kelsey.
Then, very carefully climbing back down to court level, Anderson gave props to his coach and team during his post-match interview with ESPN, and he also remembered to thank his wife and his parents, too.
“We’ve been privileged to play with some of the greatest players ever to play the game and it was nice that some of them gave us a chance,” said Anderson, acknowledging the absence of Andy Murray and Novak Djokovic from this year’s U.S. Open.
About the author:
Michael Dickens is a Washington, D.C.-based freelance journalist who writes and blogs about tennis.