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Rafael Nadal outlasts Dominic Thiem in U.S. Open marathon

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NEW YORK — Rafael Nadal began his U.S. Open quarterfinal as poorly as possible, shut out in a set by a 6-0 score for only the fourth time in 282 career Grand Slam matches.

On the previous three such occasions, he’d lost. On this one, he managed to come back to win, although it took 4 hours, 49 minutes and never did get easy for him.

The defending champion and No. 1 seed at Flushing Meadows recovered from his disastrous start and other stumbles along the way to beat No. 9 Dominic Thiem 0-6, 6-4, 7-5, 6-7 (4), 7-6 (5) for a semifinal berth at a third consecutive Grand Slam tournament, winning a physical, back-and-forth tussle that concluded after 2 a.m. on Wednesday.

“Very demanding, in all aspects,” said Nadal, who will face 2009 champion Juan Martin del Potro on Friday for a berth in the final. “A question of a little bit of luck at the end.”

How tense and tight was this one? Not only was Nadal two points from losing at 5-all in the closing tiebreaker, but he finished with fewer total points, 171-166.

“It’s cruel, sometimes, tennis,” Thiem said, calling the loss “the first really epic match I’ve played.”

When it ended, on an overhead by Thiem that sailed long, everyone in Nadal’s guest box — a group that included actor Ben Stiller — leaped to their feet to celebrate. Nadal climbed over the net to hug his opponent, then whisper an apology and words of encouragement.

“I’m very sorry for Dominic,” Nadal told a rowdy crowd in Arthur Ashe Stadium. “He’s a close friend on tour. He’s a great guy. A great player.”

Asked about that at his news conference, Thiem said with a chuckle: “Well, I don’t think he’s really sorry.”

This rematch of the French Open final in June, won by Nadal, was his first match against a top-20 opponent at the U.S. Open since 2013, when he beat then-No. 1 Novak Djokovic in the final.

It sure seemed at the shocking outset as if Nadal was somehow unprepared for this step up in competition. Thiem collected 24 of the opening set’s 31 points, thanks in large part to a 13-3 edge in winners.

Hard to not think back to 24 hours earlier, when Nadal’s great rival, No. 2 seed Roger Federer, was upset in the fourth round during similarly muggy conditions. Nadal was sweating so much in the 90-degree heat and 50-percent humidity that a mountain of white towels formed next to his changeover bench.

Thiem made him work for this win. And how.

The depth and strength of Thiem’s groundstrokes were doing what Nadal’s shots usually do to opponents: robbing them of time and space. Plus, Thiem — an Austrian who turned 25 on Monday — was serving well, taking every point when he put a first serve in, and handling returns without a hitch.

“After that first set,” Nadal said, “the match became more normal.”

It took a while for Nadal to figure out what was wrong and become Thiem’s equal in entertaining, body-punishing baseline exchanges that inspired loud gasps from spectators. Still, this whole contest was filled with challenges for Nadal.

He fell behind by a break in the third set before rebounding. He was two points from victory at 6-5, deuce, in the fourth as Thiem served, but flubbed a forehand volley, leaping for a ball that appeared to be sailing out and dumping it into the net. That mistake might have stayed in Nadal’s head, because he played terribly in the ensuing tiebreaker.

In the fifth, Nadal held three break points at 5-all, love-40, but Thiem took the next five points told serve.

That, Nadal would say afterward, managed to “break my heart. But I just keep going.”

He usually does.

When Nadal makes it this far in New York, he usually doesn’t stumble. He has now won seven U.S. Open quarterfinals in a row when he’s made it that far; his only loss in that round came back in 2006.

He is bidding for a fourth title at Flushing Meadows and 18th Grand Slam trophy overall.

Del Potro, the No. 3 seed, got to the semifinals by defeating No. 11 John Isner 6-7 (5), 6-3, 7-6 (4), 6-2.

During that earlier quarterfinal, Isner doubled over and rested his elbows on his knees. He grimaced. He shook his head. He looked as if he wanted to be anywhere but where he was: falling further and further behind in energy-robbing heat.

“Whatever the humidity is on outer courts or in the city, I think it’s amplified on center court,” Isner said. “It’s just very difficult to deal with. I have never seen Roger sweat ever. If he’s sweating a lot and has to change clothes, then you know it’s pretty humid out there.”

Isner was bidding to become the first American man in a dozen years to get to the final four at Flushing Meadows.

But while Isner was playing before what could count as a home crowd, del Potro got all manner of support throughout, from the blue-and-white flags or soccer jerseys dotting the stands to the repeated singsong chants of his nickname, “Delpo,” punctuated by clapping.

Those choruses resonated in the arena after key points, such as each time del Potro erased one of Isner’s break chances, three in all. Still, it was Isner who struck first, closing the opening tiebreaker with a 132 mph (212 kph) ace down the middle. That was the first set dropped by del Potro in the tournament.

He managed to take the next three, though, and now meets Nadal for the 17th time on tour.

Nadal leads 11-5, including the past three, each at a Grand Slam tournament: in the semifinals of the U.S. Open last year, followed by the semifinals of the French Open and a five-set thriller in the Wimbledon quarterfinals this year.

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Athletes, anti-doping leaders issues statement on RUSADA status

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More Olympic athletes and anti-doping leaders have come out in protest of the possible reinstatement of Russia’s anti-doping agency.

Members of the athletes committees from the World Anti-Doping Agency and the U.S. Olympic Committee, along with a group of international anti-doping leaders and a key supporter of a Russian whistleblower, released statements Tuesday urging WADA’s executive committee not to reinstate RUSADA when it meets later this week.

Jim Swartz, a supporter of former Moscow anti-doping lab director Grigory Rodchenkov, said “WADA has undermined its own moral and regulatory authority” by proposing a weakened version of the roadmap to bring RUSADA back into compliance.

The agency has been suspended for nearly three years in the wake of what investigators said was a state-sponsored doping scandal designed to win Olympic medals.

The WADA athletes’ group is led by Beckie Scott, who resigned her position on WADA’s compliance review committee after it recommended RUSADA’s reinstatement last week.

Italy’s focus for 2026 bid now on Milan, Cortina d’Ampezzo

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ROME (AP) — Italy’s three-pronged bid for the 2026 Winter Olympics has been reduced to a two-city candidacy featuring Milan and Cortina d’Ampezzo.

Following Turin’s exclusion, the Italian Olympic Committee is sending a delegation featuring Milan and Cortina representatives to meet with IOC leaders on Wednesday.

The move comes after government undersecretary and sports delegate Giancarlo Giorgetti told the Senate on Tuesday that the three-city proposal “is dead.”

Turin’s exclusion follows infighting between Milan Mayor Giuseppe Sala and Turin counterpart Chiara Appendino, who had been arguing over the bid’s leadership and naming rights.

Peliminary bids are due to be presented at IOC meetings in Buenos Aires next month.

“The candidacy needs to be saved, so we’re open to moving forward together,” Veneto region president Luca Zaia and Lombardy region president Attilio Fontana said in a joint statement.

“If Turin is withdrawing, which upsets us, at this point two realities remain, and they are called Veneto and Lombardy. So we are moving forward with the Lombardy-Veneto Olympics.”

Under the revised plan, hockey and speedskating — which had been slotted for venues built for the 2006 Turin Games — would be held in Milan. Alpine skiing would be held in 1956 host Cortina, while biathlon would be slated for nearby Anterselva — a regular stop on the biathlon World Cup circuit.

Three other bids remain in contention for 2026: Stockholm, Sweden; Calgary, Canada; and Erzurum, Turkey.

The Japanese city of Sapporo dropped its bid on Monday following a recent earthquake.

International Olympic Committee members will pick the host in Milan in October 2019. While IOC rules have long prevented bids from the host country of an IOC session, new rules have created more leeway.

Italy is anxious to bring a bid through the entire process after two Rome candidacies were withdrawn.

Two years ago, Italy was forced to end Rome’s bid for the 2024 Summer Olympics because of staunch opposition from the city’s mayor. And in 2012, then-premier Mario Monti scrapped the city’s bid for the 2020 Olympics because of financial concerns.