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NEW YORK—Number One in the world, No. 1 seed at the U.S. Open, and No. 1 with a bullet on a cool, clear night in the Big Apple.
Rafael Nadal, the glitteriest of the glitterati left standing in the final Grand Slam of the season, is into his 23rd major final, with a dead-eye bead on a 16th championship title. It would be his third at Flushing Meadows.
Juan Martin del Potro — who dragged himself out of a sickbed last week, almost retiring from a fourth-round match before surging back from two sets down to win in a gutsy marathon performance — simply didn’t have enough left in the tank Friday night, physically or emotionally, to derail the decorated, dogged Spaniard. Eight years removed from his first and only major triumph, here at Flushing Meadows, del Potro was slapped away, 4-6, 6-0, 6-3, 6-2, in a display of total domination by Nadal, that first set ambush by del Potro notwithstanding.
It was as close to a marquee match as the Arthur Ashe Stadium audience has enjoyed on the wrung-out men’s side of the tournament. Certainly more highly anticipated than the final on tap Sunday between Nadal and South African Kevin Anderson, who beat Pablo Carreno Busta in the earlier semifinal, 4-6, 7-5, 6-3, 6-4.
Thirty-one years old and re-assembled after surgery to his knees and wrist, Nadal has arguably never looked stronger and more commanding than at this moment in his stellar career.
He deserves a more equal opponent for the apogee of this tournament than Anderson, although that’s probably unfair to the first-time Slam final underdog, who earned his slot by cutting — and serving — through the flabby underbelly of the draw.
And, of course, it’s sport. Anything can happen.
It was an impressive opening frame by the gentle giant del Potro, which certainly thrilled his amigo cheering section up in the top tier of the stadium.
Not much to cheer about after that, however, as Nadal gathered steam and awesomeness, unstoppable, certainly not by an opponent who was so palpably fatigued, dragging heavy legs, rapidly losing velocity on serves and returns, almost wincingly functioning on fumes.
By the second set, Nadal had obviously started to figure out del Potro’s backhand and was challenging his tremendous forehand too, with breath-takers down the line that he had scarcely attempted in the first set, pouncing on short balls, chasing del Potro left and right.
Nadal cracked poor del Potro wide open in the second set, winning at love, and the Argentine just never recovered from the unravelling. At one point, between the second and third frames, Nadal won nine consecutive games.
There would, most assuredly, be no repeat of the thrashing Nadal received at del Potro’s hands in the semifinal of that 2009 U.S. Open.
Since then, Nadal has won 15 straight semis in a row.
“I changed a couple of things,” Nadal explained about the striking difference between the first set last night and everything that came afterward. “I felt that I was not playing bad the first set but I was playing too much against his backhand. I feel he’s waiting for me there.
“At the beginning of the second, I knew that something had to change. Be more unpredictable. Because without playing bad, I was losing. Something had to change.”
Del Potro could not adjust in return.
He departed the court a dejected man but having made even more fans, for his grit and his charm.
“Nothing special happened.” del Potro told reporters. “Rafael just played even better, the last three sets of the match. I couldn’t hit my backhand as good as I did earlier in the match. He played so smart from the second set to the end of the match.”
It was the first time, del Potro admitted, he had been so thoroughly dominated by Nadal, but pointed out that nobody has a chance at beating the Spanish luminary without being able to play from both flanks.
“Well, he’s the No. 1 of the world. I don’t know in the future if I can beat him again.”
Flu, exhaustion and a frankly superior opponent all caught up with him.
“To be honest, I’m angry to lose a chance like this. But maybe tomorrow, after tomorrow, I’ll be calm and will see how good the tournament was for me.”
Nadal, back in the U.S. Open final for the first time since 2013 — was all grins, but gracious, in the aftermath.
“I was playing so-so at the beginning of the tournament and I have been playing better every day. Today was the day to play my best. That’s the real thing. I felt I was playing at the right level to win that match and I did. And I’m happy.”
As for the undercard semi, perhaps introductions are in order.
On one side was Carreno Busta: third-best Spanish men’s tennis player, a 26-year-old who in 15 previous Grand Slam appearances only once got beyond the third round — at Roland Garros this year, where he edged Canada’s Milos Raonic in a marathon five-setter, then retired from his following match versus Nadal with an abdominal fracture.
On the other was Anderson: a 31-year-old South African (nominally; an all-American at Illinois, he resides in Florida) who had advanced beyond the fourth round just once before, losing to Stan Wawrinka in the U.S. Open quarter-finals in 2015. He occasionally shadow-boxes after a good point, an entertaining change from the customary tennis fist pump.
Anderson is almost alarmingly intense but susceptible to twitchy meltdowns in the big moments. And there is no moment so big as Sunday, a title bout with Nadal.
“I’m just over the moon right now,” he said, after scrambling over flower pots to climb up into his box, a tradition usually reserved for a win in the final. “It was an unbelievably tough match for me. I was pretty nervous. I really had to dig deep and I think my emotion at the end summed it up.”
Nine months ago, Anderson was told he might need hip surgery. Robust physiotherapy averted the knife. “This means the absolute world to me.”
He offered a shout-out of sorts to all the top seeds who fell or never made it to Queens because of injury, which opened up the draw. “Some of them gave us a bit of a shot to try and make a run at this tournament.”
Anderson didn’t face a seeded player until the quarters — he slotted in at No. 28 — where he eliminated the last U.S. man left standing, Sam Querrey, in a serve-pounding collision. He is the first South African to reach a Grand Slam singles final since Kevin Curren at the 1984 Australian Open. And, at No. 32 in the world, he is the lowest-ranked player in a Slam final since 2009, although he was tipped by some tennis insiders as a dark horse from the get-go.
Against Nadal, he is a serious underdog. His head-to-head record against the world No. 1: 0-4.