Rafael Nadal has been tennis’ greatest warrior, albeit in a difficult way. If it was a back injury, a wrist injury and even appendicitis that kept him away from the game a few years back, it is a recurring knee problem that has reared its ugly head this year.
Nadal may have bowed out at 7-6(3), 6-2 against Juan Martin del Potro in the U.S Open semifinal on Friday, but not before putting himself through the usual grind: long, long ral lies chasing every ball as if it were championship point.
Playing through pain
One such at 2-2, 15-0 caused him to hop around in pain, but Nadal staved the inevitable off for two more hours. He came out looking purposeful and energetic, almost like a hunting tiger. He won eight straight points, pushing the first set to a tie-breaker.
“You can imagine [it’s] very difficult for me to say goodbye before the match was finished,’’ Nadal said. It was difficult for the crowd too, who had gathered to watch some guaranteed high-quality tennis between the two.
Nadal’s retirement may have taken the shine off the moment for del Potro, but it was a long time coming for the Argentinian. Throbbing knee or not, Nadal found it increasingly difficult to counter del Potro’s ferocious forehand. It was always del Potro dictating the action and getting Nadal on the move.
In Sunday’s final, only his second since he routed Roger Federer in 2009, del Potro will face Novak Djokovic, who straight-setted Kei Nishikori 6-3, 6-4, 6-2 in the other semifinal.
Temperatures may have dropped and the weather may have turned pleasant, but Djokovic was smothering. The quality of his dominance is different now: he may not slice up or bludgeon his opponent, like during his prime. Djokovic, who is still finding his footing, gradually suffocates them.
He made Nishikori run wider and harder to chase the ball. His drop shots, which failed him during the quarterfinal clash against Millman, seemed to work wickedly this time. He won 80% of his first serve points and, even more surprisingly, 71% on the second.
And for Nishikori, the asphyxiation was real: he was down 0-40 in the second game of the match. He managed to save four break points, but Djokovic, the master of controlled aggression, prevailed on the fifth. It seemed Nishikori too would go Nadal’s way when he winced and pulled up his right leg in the ninth game, but managed to stay alive.
After falling in the first, he entered an eight-deuce marathon in the first game of the second set. Djokovic still ended up holding serve and Nishikori was completely out of gas. He racked up two breakpoints later in the set, aided by two double faults from Djokovic, but the Serb’s deep and brutal backhand returns saved him.
Djokovic, who did not play last year’s Open battling an elbow injury, has turned his vulnerability into a source for brilliant tennis. He is faster, fitter, stronger and most importantly, more patient in his application of the game. That, more than anything, is what will make him an overwhelming opponent on Sunday.
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