Rafael Nadal powers into U.S. Open final

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NEW YORK — Rafael Nadal is one win from capping a career-turnaround season with a 16th Grand Slam title, following one of the most magnificent hours of hard-court tennis of his life.

Nadal, after dropping the first set, reeled off nine straight games en route to beating Juan Martin del Potro 4-6, 6-0, 6-3, 6-2 in the U.S. Open semifinals on Friday night.

The Spaniard is an overwhelming favorite Sunday against South African Kevin Anderson, the lowest-ranked man (No. 32) to make a U.S. Open final since rankings were introduced in 1973.

Nadal’s play was exquisite those last three sets against Del Potro, a player so dangerous that his forehand is now associated with Thor’s Hammer.

He neutralized the tall Argentine’s power, silenced an Arthur Ashe Stadium crowd spotted with Albiceleste jerseys and moved like we’re accustomed to seeing on clay courts.

Nadal eyes his third U.S. Open title and first since 2013, when he was the world’s best player. He returned to No. 1 this season, after a dip in 2015 and 2016, when he won zero Grand Slams and dropped to No. 10 in the rankings.

“Some troubles, injuries, tough moments,” Nadal said on court after his win Friday. “This year since the beginning has been a very emotional year.”

The comeback began in January. Nadal should have won the Australian Open but squandered a fifth-set lead in the final to longtime rival Roger Federer.

Nadal bagged his most coveted crown, a 10th French Open in June, and regained the No. 1 ranking last month. But he came to New York without a hard-court title since January 2014.

As incredible as Nadal has played here, the draw parted like the Red Sea for him. Past champions Novak Djokovic, Andy Murray and Stan Wawrinka withdrew before the tournament. Del Potro, who beat Nadal in an epic Rio Olympic semifinal, knocked out Federer in the quarterfinals Wednesday.

If Nadal lifts the trophy on Sunday, he will have done it without having faced a single top-25 player. Never before has a man or woman won a U.S. Open without facing a player ranked outside the top 10.

Anderson, who is 31 years old and 6-foot-8, beat Spaniard Pablo Carreño Busta 4-6, 7-5, 6-3, 6-4 in an earlier semifinal Friday. He is 0-4 against Nadal.

In the women’s final on Saturday (4 p.m. ET), Madison Keys meets Sloane Stephens in the first all-American matchup since Venus and Serena Williams in 2002.

Keys, 22, and Stephens, 24, are both first-time Grand Slam finalists. One will become the first American woman other than Venus and Serena to win a Slam since Jennifer Capriati at the 2002 Australian Open.

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MORE: Nadal recreates famous Olympic cauldron lighting

Yuzuru Hanyu wins Autumn Classic despite shaky performance

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Yuzuru Hanyu won his third Autumn Classic International crown in Oakville, Ontario on Saturday, but it was a bumpy ride.

The two-time Olympic champion’s debut of his “Origin” free skate, inspired by Yevgeni Plushenko’s famous “Tribute to Njinsky” program, had many fine elements: opening quadruple loop and toe loop jumps, plus two triple axels in the program’s second half; a pair of superb closing spins with fittingly baroque positions; and promising step and choreography sequences that preserved Plushenko’s flair, while adding a touch more refinement and control.

But a face-forward fall on a quad salchow, followed by a popped quad toe, meant Hanyu’s 165.91 points put him second in the free skate to his 16-year-old training partner, Junhwan Cha of South Korea. His total score, including Friday’s short program, was 263.65 points, just under four points higher than Cha’s second-place total.

At this point in the season, many other skaters – not including Plushenko – would have shrugged  off the imperfections in the challenging program and been happy to put a few miles on the choreography. But the 23-year-old Hanyu’s perfectionism runs year-round.

“My first competition of the season is always this level, unfortunately,” he said, as translated from Japanese. “I wanted to skate my short and free without any regrets here, and I was not able to do that.”

Hanyu likely remembers this event last season, when a mistake-riddled free skate put him second to longtime rival Javier Fernandez of Spain. This time around, the Japanese superstar, who trains at Toronto’s Cricket Skating and Curling Club under Brian Orser and Tracy Wilson, was especially disappointed that his jump glitches meant he could not attempt a quad-triple axel sequence, a combination that might have been worth some 20 points.

“I was not strong enough to skate this program yet,” he said. “I feel fine, I am not injured. Another program, maybe (last season’s) ‘Seimei,’ I might have been able to do well, but not this program. I am just not ready.”

Just as he did after Friday’s short program, where a botched spin cost him several points, Hanyu vowed to work harder.

“This is where I am right now, and I need to practice more,” he said.

Hanyu has plenty of time: his first Grand Prix event is in Finland on November 2.

The skating world may best remember this event as the week Cha came into his own. The Korean teen, who landed a quad salchow in his short on Friday, hit a quad toe to start his free to “Romeo and Juliet” – just the second time he has landed the jump in competition. While his quad salchow was judge under rotated, he went on to land two triple-triple combinations and two triple axels, all done with style and maturity beyond his years. The program earned 169.22 points to win the day.

“Last season, I didn’t skate so well. I had some hip and back (injuries) and boot problems,” Cha, who also said he had recently had a growth spurt, said. “Now I feel much stronger, and I have been working hard.”

Asked if he had a skating idol – perhaps his training partner, Hanyu – Cha demurred.

“I don’t have just one idol,” he said. “I like many different skaters, for different reasons. I will like one skater for his jumps; another skater for his spins.”

MORE: Tennell upsets Medvedeva at Autumn Classic

Canada’s Roman Sadovsky, fourth after the short program, stepped up to win the bronze medal with 233.86 points after landing two quads, a salchow and toe, in his free skate.

Jason Brown may be disappointed in his fourth-place finish here, but it cannot have come as a big surprise: the 2015 U.S. champion has said that since moving to Toronto this spring to train under Orser and Wilson, he has been re-learning his jump technique. He called the move “a four-year project.”

“I cannot speak more highly of Brian, Tracy, Lee (Barkell) and Karen (Preston), the whole team at Cricket Club,” Brown, 23, said. “They have been really been patient with me and worked with me methodically. … We’re starting from the ground up. Each day I’m learning something new, each day they are helping me work through something, whether that me a mental thing, physically getting a jump,  or the pacing of a program.”

The debut of Brown’s free to a medley of Simon & Garfunkel’s “Old Friends” and “Hazy Days of Winter” was bittersweet: his blades sung during spins, step sequences and transitions, but the jumps weren’t there. An opening quad salchow was doubled; a triple axel, popped into a single. He earned 144.33 points to place fifth in the free and fourth overall with 233.23.

Wilson, though, said they are just getting started.

“Let’s face it, he is a brilliant skater and he’s gotten close to the top of the world,” Wilson said of Brown, who was fourth in the world in 2015. “It’s a fine line trying to find room for improvement, and so that’s what we are trying to do. We are throwing a lot at him. We’re going to pull back a little.”

“What he brings, though, cannot be ignored,” she added. “My husband can be in the rink and know nothing about skating, and be mesmerized by what Jason does. He could teach clinics for every step sequence and position details. He is integral to what the sport needs.”

MORE: Kaitlyn Weaver, Andrew Poje debut free dance tribute to Denis Ten

Kaitlyn Weaver, Andrew Poje debut free dance tribute to Denis Ten

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Sometimes, you have to follow your heart, even if it makes you sad.

That’s what Kaitlyn Weaver and Andrew Poje thought when they chose to perform their free dance to “SOS, d’un terrien en detresse” this season. The tender Kazakh ballad was used by their friend, Denis Ten, who trained alongside them in Hackensack, New Jersey for a time. Ten died on July 19 in his home city of Almaty, Kazakhstan, after being stabbed by robbers attempting to vandalize his car.

“He was our dear friend. We found this music when we went to Kazakhstan and (saw) him skate to it this summer,” Weaver said. “We couldn’t get it out of our heads.  We came home and built a program around a different version (by Los Angeles: The Voices).”

The debut of the sensitive, yearning program earned Weaver and Poje 120.74 points and the title here in Oakville.  Canada’s world bronze medalists gained six Level  4 elements, the most valuable in figure skating’s scoring system, and judges also awarded high scores for interpretation and performance.

“When the tragedy struck, we knew our mission in this program was to do it for Denis,” Weaver said. “It’s about a person who is in distress and has a guardian there to care for him, and in the end,  they both understand it’s (the guardian’s) time to go. It’s the tragic sweetness and acceptance of it we’re trying to feel and portray.”

Doesn’t repeatedly training a program with such tragic connections get draining?

“That was the hardest thing,” Poje said. “But all of the memories we have of Denis bring us such joy. We had great laughs, especially the year we trained together. It made us feel at peace with going out there. We know how much he has touched people around the world.”

“This is our medium, our form of expression,” Weaver said. “We felt we needed to use it to pay tribute. We are able to channel our feelings into art, and that’s our way to deal with the tragedy.”

The free dance was choreographed by Pasquale Camerlengo, who coached Weaver and Poje for several years at the Detroit Skating Club. Although Nikolai Morozov, who works in Hackensack, remains the couple’s primary coach, they also work with Camerlengo and Igor Shpilband in Novi, Michigan.

Morozov thinks this arrangement of high-powered ice dance honchos is a trio made in heaven.

“They love to work with Pasquale, and Igor is very excited to work with them,” he said. “We are just happy because to us, it is most important that they are getting better. I don’t think we have egos any more. We are just happy to work with great skaters. It’s been very easy.”

Autumn Classic was Weaver and Poje’s first and only fall competition this season. They next compete at the 2019 Canadian Figure Skating Championships. Tomorrow, they join rehearsals for the upcoming “Thank You Canada Tour” across the nation, along with Tessa Virtue and Scott Moir; Patrick Chan; Meagan Duhamel and Eric Radford; Kaetlyn Osmond; and other figure skating stars. The couple will alternate performing their competitive rhythm dance, a romantic tango, with their free dance.

“Whatever the feeling is in the morning, short or free, is what we’ll do,” Poje said.

“We will definitely get both programs out there in front of the audiences,” Weaver added.

Two teams training at Gadbois Center in Montreal, Quebec under Marie-France Dubreuil and Patrice LauzonAdrian Diaz and Olivia Smart of Spain, and Shiyue Wang and Xinyu Liu of China – placed second and third, respectively.

MORE: Tennell upsets Medvedeva at Autumn Classic