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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Gregorio Paltrinieri swims second-fastest 1500m freestyle in history

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Olympic champion Gregorio Paltrinieri swam the second-fastest 1500m freestyle in history, clocking 14:33.10 in his native Italy on Thursday.

Paltrinieri, 25, missed Chinese Sun Yang‘s world record from the 2012 Olympics by 2.08 seconds.

The Italian now owns the second- and third-fastest times in history, including his 14:34.10 from the 2016 European Championships, also held at the 2012 Olympic pool in London.

Paltrinieri is a versatile distance swimmer. At last year’s world championships, he finished sixth in the open-water 10km to qualify for the Olympics, then won the 800m free in the pool in a European record time and finished with 1500m bronze, just missing a third straight world title in that event.

German Florian Wellbrock won the 1500m in 14:36.54 at worlds, with Paltrinieri finishing 2.21 seconds back.

Sun, 28, was in February banned eight years stemming from destroying a drug-test sample with a hammer in September 2018. Sun, who focused more on the 200m and 400m frees in recent years, did not race the 1500m at the 2017 or 2019 Worlds.

Top-level swim meets in the U.S. are scheduled to resume in November with the Tyr Pro Series.

MORE: Michael Phelps qualifies for first Olympics at age 15

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Bianca Andreescu to miss U.S. Open

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Bianca Andreescu withdrew from the U.S. Open, citing “unforeseen challenges, including the Covid pandemic” compromising her ability to prepare to defend her Grand Slam title.

“I have taken this step in order to focus on my match fitness and ensure that I return ready to play at my highest level,” Andreescu, a 20-year-old Canadian, posted on social media. “The US Open victory last year has been the high point of my career thus far and I will miss not being there. However, I realize that the unforeseen challenges, including the Covid pandemic, have compromised my ability to prepare and compete to the degree necessary to play at my highest level.”

Andreescu’s absence means the U.S. Open, the first Grand Slam tournament since tennis resumed amid the coronavirus pandemic, will be without both 2019 male and female singles champions.

Rafael Nadal previously announced he would not defend his title, saying he would rather not travel given the global situation. Roger Federer is also out after knee surgery. Women’s No. 1 Ash Barty didn’t enter, either, citing travel concerns.

Last year, Andreescu made her U.S. Open title run as the 15th seed, sweeping Serena Williams in the final. Ranked 208th a year earlier, she became the first player born in the 2000s to win a Slam and the first teen Slam winner since Maria Sharapova at the 2006 U.S. Open.

Andreescu then missed the Australian Open in January due to rehab from a knee injury that forced her to retire during a match at the WTA Finals on Oct. 30. She also missed the French Open and Wimbledon in 2019 following a rotator cuff tear.

MORE: Serena Williams, reclusive amid pandemic, returns to tennis competition

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