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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