NEW YORK – The list of absentees in the men’s singles draw for this US Open almost guaranteed that some outlier, some inspirational longshot, would make a big run out of the bottom half of the draw.
But in the end, the No. 1 ranked player in the world made it, too.
Rafael Nadal will play for his 16th Grand Slam title, his third US Open title on Sunday. And he’ll face a longshot who is seeking his first major title, in his first major final.
Sounds like a mismatch, on paper. But tennis isn’t played on paper.
South Africa’s Kevin Anderson, who would have been unseeded with a full field but ended up in the No. 28 slot, defeated No. 12 seed Pablo Carreño Busta of Spain, 4-6, 7-5, 6-3, 6-4 in the first men’s semifinal of the day Friday.
In the nightcap, Nadal survived a shaky first set. After that, he ran over a depleted Juan Martín del Potro 4-6, 6-0, 6-3, 6-2.
Early tactical woes
Two days before, after losing to him in the quarterfinals, a tired Roger Federer said he thought del Potro would have a better shot at beating Nadal.
But after back-to-back emotional matches to get here, the Argentine used up whatever energy reserve he had left in the first set.
It was the 15th consecutive Grand Slam semifinal won by Nadal. The last one he lost was to del Potro – a 6-2, 6-2, 6-2 drubbing in that 2009 US Open that remains the only major on the Argentine’s resumé.
The first set had Nadal so far back behind the court, he was practically on a first-name basis with the fans in the front row. His game plan evidently had been to pound del Potro’s weaker backhand with his own forehand, a cross-court pattern that you wouldn’t think would favor del Potro.
But the backhand held up. It was fairly clear that del Potro’s plan was to hit out with his two-handed backhand as much as he could, throwing his ongoing concern for his surgically repaired wrist to the wind.
He knew – everyone in Arthur Ashe Stadium knew, too – that slicing to Nadal’s forehand was going to mean an early shower.
Adjustments on the fly
In the second set, Nadal reset.
Perhaps his uncle and coach Toni Nadal had a direct pipeline to Nadal on that sit-down. Because just as he was outlining the adjustments thought his nephew should make during an interview with ESPN, Nadal did exactly that.
“This match, we have a problem. When Rafael hits the ball with his forehand to del Potro’s backhand, our forehand is not good enough. And del Potro can play easy with his backhand, and then he makes better shots with his forehand,” Toni Nadal told Pam Shriver. “In my opinion, Rafael has to give more power in every shot. And go sometimes to the net.
“The problem is he has go more to the ball, not waiting (for) the ball, and sometimes he gives too much spin. He has to hit it.”
The spinny forehand is the telltale sign of nerves for Nadal.
Pooped del Potro
But by the second set, as del Potro was running on fumes, Nadal knew exactly what to do. He literally doubled the number of balls he hit to del Potro’s forehand in the last three sets.
And Nadal against a winded, wounded opponent can be pretty merciless.
He even began taking far less time between points on serve, robbing del Potro of much needed recovery time between points. Tactically, it was a great move.
“Of course I went on court with the idea to hit more against his backhand. But at the same time, knowing that I have to play against his forehand, too. Sometimes you need to lose or you need to see that things are not going well to really take that position and I made it. That’s what happen, no? After losing the first set, I say if I keep going that way, maybe I going to be two sets against (me) quick, so now is the moment to change,” Nadal said.
“And I changed and it worked well. Sometimes (it doesn’t) work well. Today worked well, and I’m happy. I think I am with confidence. I am doing the right things, and my serve worked well. But I changed a little bit the directions in the first set. I think that I was serving too much against his backhand, too, and then I started to change the rhythm of the serve. That was very important too, no?
“The most important thing is, after the first set, in my opinion, he didn’t hit balls in a row from good positions. That makes the difference.”
Good form, right attitude
Nadal’s serve has been on point this summer, even in the matches he has lost.
It’s not what it was when he won the US Open in 2010; that year, he was firing it up to 130 mph at times. But he’s got more velocity on it than he has had in recent years. And he’s being a little less predictable with it. He’s holding serve impressively.
Del Potro had just two break-point opportunities the entire match. The one he did convert in the first set came after a let cord that went his way.
Nadal also went 21-for-27 at the net.
“I think I never had the control of the match. I just have lucky to (break) his serve with the net point. He was playing me all the time to my backhand. When you don’t have that confidence to play three, four hours with a good backhand against Rafa, is just matter of time to get down your game. But also, he improve very much his game after the second set, and his balls come too fast from both sides.” Del Potro said.
“I think at the beginning of the match, he was playing all the time to my backhand, trying to see how good is my backhand at this moment. It was good, but it wasn’t good enough to play four-set, five-set match. And I couldn’t make any winner in the match, which you must do a lot of winners against Rafa.”
Old foes meet again
In Anderson, Nadal meets a longtime acquaintance, going all the way back to the 12-and-under junior tour. They are just two weeks apart, with Anderson being the elder.
The way the South African celebrated after winning his semifinal against Carreño Busta, you wonder what he might have left in the bag should he buck all the odds and beat Nadal on Sunday.
The 6-foot-8 giant nimbly climbed up in to the player’s box to celebrate with his coach, wife and various other friends and supporters.
That’s a ritual normally reserved for finals day. But you can understand him taking the opportunity to do it on Friday.
Enjoy tonight, prepare tomorrow
He was talking a mile a minute on court and moving a mile a minute as well, afterwards. That’s how much the adrenaline was still flowing.
Anderson got into the top 10 – for a week – in Oct. 2015. He had issues with his knee for the longest time and at the end of last year, he began having trouble with his hip.
His ranking was down to No. 80 as the first Grand Slam tournament of the season began in Australia
“It was diagnosed as a labrum tear. I spoke to several doctors. It’s a tricky injury. … I was fortunate enough to be acquainted with some very good physios who thought I could beat it without getting surgery,” he said. “It took a lot of work. I mean, several hours a day over, you know, almost two months. Even after that, another couple months of rehab. I feel like obviously the biggest plus is when, you know, all the work you do really pays off.”
When the final major of the season is in the books, Anderson will be ranked No. 15 at worst.
If he can beat Nadal for the first time in his pro career, he will be back in the top 10.
(Oh, and there were a few golfers there).
— 1 Golf (@1golf_) September 9, 2017
— Louis Oosthuizen (@Louis57TM) September 9, 2017