NEW YORK – Arthur Ashe Stadium is probably still buzzing Wednesday morning after Rafael Nadal and his natural-born successor, Dominic Thiem, played to a 2:02 a.m. finish.
And, after the 0-6, 6-4, 7-5, 6-7 (4), 7-6 (5), four hour and 49-minute marathon won by the world No. 1 and defending US Open champion, you could clearly see why teenagers and young 20-somethings are having so much time breaking through on the Grand Slam stage.
The sustained level of virtuosity in this one, and the sheer physicality, were off the charts. It’s just not a job for teenaged prodigies any more.
Even as the match approached five hours and neared 2 a.m. on another unbearably humid night in New York, the level was sustained.
The racket-head speed, the scrambling, the sheer will and effort produced by the two players seven years apart in age, never wavered. Never.
These two had met 10 times over the last five years – all on their preferred clay. This one, on a hard court in the city that never sleeps, was their best.
Nadal to himself: “Wake up!”
Nadal won just seven points in the first set as a blinding, brilliant start by Thiem squared off with a nervous one by Nadal.
“When these things happens, normally I am not the guy that look at the string or look at the box or look at the racket. I am the guy to look at myself. Nothing about the string. Nothing about the tension. Just about my negative level in the beginning of the match. I needed to move forward, to change that dynamic, and I did. But the first step to change that dynamic is not find an excuse on the racquet or on the string or on something that is not the true,” Nadal said.
“The only true is that you have to do things better to be able to fight for the point and fight for the match, no? I am critic with myself. That’s all. I did a very bad set. He played well. When was 4-0, the only thing that was in my mind was, ‘Okay, finish that set and just try to be ready for the beginning of the next.”
If those two forces had continued to butt heads, it would have been over quickly. But this is Nadal, who will spill every last drop of sweat he can manufacture on the court before he heads out the door.
Thiem served to take a 2-1 set lead. But he couldn’t close the deal, and Nadal snuck out a set he perhaps shouldn’t have won.
In the fourth set, the Spaniard had love-40 on Thiem’s serve at 5-5 – and couldn’t convert. Somehow, Thiem held. And then Nadal played an incredibly poor tiebreak to push the match the distance.
“That love 40 in the 5-4 breaked my heart. But I just keep going,” Nadal said.
It was time for the (relative) youngster to waver.
Drama goes the distance
But Thiem, who turned 25 the previous day, is no longer a kid who can’t stand up to the challenge. He’s a workhorse, so much stronger than he was a few years ago with the resultant effect on the power in his strokes. He’s a brilliant clay-court talent who emerged during this US Open as an exciting hard-court player as well, after a rather quiet summer.
He gave Nadal everything he could handle – until it all ended, suddenly, dramatically, on an overhead the Austrian missed so badly, no one could truly believe it happened.
“It’s going to be stuck in my mind forever. Forever I’m going to remember this match, for sure. But, I mean, it’s cruel sometimes tennis, you know, because I think this match didn’t really deserve a loser. But there has to be one,” Thiem said. “I mean, I would say the first really epic match I played. I played some good ones before, but not that long, not that long against the great guys on the Grand Slam stage.”
On the biggest stage, not on clay, Thiem shines
The New York crowd was introduced to Thiem as well, in a formal way.
He’s a top 10 player with 10 career titles, and a French Open finalist this year. But this was his first time past the fourth round, in his fifth attempt in New York. They might have remembered him from a year ago, when he was up two sets to none against Juan Martin del Potro in the fourth round, only to lose in five sets. But the 2018 edition of Thiem is one who is ready to win majors, even on a hard court.
As much as it was a pro-Nadal crowd, there’s no doubt the fans were absolutely wowed by some of the virtuoso winners hit by the Austrian, when he seemed he had no time at all to even load up and fire. He charmed them, completely.
Thiem also gets the seal of approval from Nadal, who recognizes in Thiem some of the qualities that he values in a fellow competitor and, indeed, in himself. He had just the right words as the two enjoyed a touching moment at the met.
“You are good. Keep going,” Nadal said he told Thiem. “Because he’s young, he has plenty of time to win big tournaments. And he has everything. He’s a fighter. He has a great attitude, that’s the most important thing.”
Best-ever efforts on the hard courts
The 11-time French Open champion has become a complete player on the hard courts now. And you wonder how many more hard-court Slams he might have won had he figured out the formula a little sooner.
There was that one year, in 2010, when he appeared in New York and started serving 130 mph. But that was a mere blip. It has taken these intervening years to get the recipe right.
On clay, he knows exactly what to do. And on grass, he long ago shortened his swings and looked to move forward – as if he understood that this was a completely different surface, and he just had to do things differently.
Perhaps, because it was so different, the polar opposite of his beloved clay, it was almost easier to think differently.
The hard courts have been a bigger challenge for him. Part of it is physical, as the surface is tough on his knees. But much of it is metaphysical. Instead of bring his grass-court game onto the hard courts, he spent many years trying to make his clay-court game work on them instead.
Now, with the hard courts slowed down to a crawl (that’s especially true in New York this year, a surface that had always been quicker in the past), and with the wisdom of experience, he’s figuring it out.
Nadal came to the net over 50 times against Thiem. And he’s no longer reluctantr to hit his backhand down the line when he needs to. It wasn’t so many years ago that he could barely pass the service line with that shot – especially in tight moments.
On Friday, Nadal will have a Slam rematch with del Potro, a Flushing semifinal bookend to the five-set thriller they played in the quarterfinals at Wimbledon in July.
They will now have met in four of the last five Grand Slams (Australia this year being the exception). Nadal has won them all.
Back in 2009, del Potro gave Nadal just six games as he won his first and only Grand Slam title. A year ago in New York, Nadal won in four sets in the semifinals.
“Always the passion to keep going, to play one more point, to save one more ball. And alway the same history: point by point, game by game, set by set and match by match. Keep going always,” Nadal said during an on-court interview that had him looking distinctly uncomfortable, perhaps on the edge of cramping, but buzzed beyond belief.
“Always, one more, you can – a little bit more. That’s the only way that I am able to be where I am today,” he said.