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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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U.S. OPEN: Scores | Men’s Draw | Women’s Draw

Eddy Alvarez, Olympic short track medalist, to play for Miami Marlins

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Eddy Alvarez realized his MLB dream, six years after earning a Winter Olympic medal, and during a global pandemic that affected his club more than any other U.S. professional sports franchise.

Alvarez, a 2014 U.S. Olympic short track speed skating medalist, is being added to the Miami Marlins roster for Tuesday’s restart of their abbreviated season, president of baseball operations Mike Hill said Monday, according to Marlins beat reporters.

The 30-year-old was among a group added after as many as 18 Marlins tested positive for the coronavirus last week, forcing the club to cancel seven games.

Alvarez is believed to be the first U.S. Winter Olympian to become a Major League Baseball player.

He may be the second Olympic medalist in a sport other than baseball to make it to the majors, joining Jim Thorpe. (Michael Jordan tried to do so with the Chicago White Sox, playing Double-A in 1994, but returned to the Chicago Bulls in 1995.)

Alvarez, a Miami native, played baseball in high school and at Salt Lake Community College before focusing on short track in 2012 for a 2014 Olympic run.

He came back from missing the 2010 Olympic team and surgeries on both knees, reportedly leaving him immobile and bedpan dependent for four to six weeks, to make the Sochi Winter Games. Eddy the Jet earned a silver medal in the 5000m relay.

Then Alvarez returned to baseball after three years away. He signed a minor-league contract with the Chicago White Sox in June 2014. He worked his way through the minors between that franchise and the Marlins system.

Alvarez was a Kannapolis Intimidator, a New Orleans Baby Cake and a Jacksonville Jumbo Shrimp.

Now, he’s a big leaguer.

“It definitely was a chance, picking up a kid who hasn’t played in three years who is starting at the age of 24,” Alvarez said in 2014. “It’s not your typical story, but I play like a 17-year-old kid. I’m running around everywhere. I’m diving around everywhere. I’m full of life. I definitely see my progression moving at a rapid pace.”

MORE: What Olympic baseball, softball return looks like in 2021

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Katie Ledecky balances glass of chocolate milk on her head while swimming

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Katie Ledecky will always remember Aug. 3 as the date she won her first Olympic gold medal, at age 15 in 2012.

Now, she can also associate it with the time she created another kind of buzz on social media.

The five-time Olympic champion posted video of her swimming the length of a pool while balancing a glass of chocolate milk on her head. Barely any, if any, milk spilled into the pool.

Ledecky swam as part of a new got milk? ad campaign.

“Hoooowww nervous were you when you did this?!” fellow Olympic champion and training partner Simone Manuel asked Ledecky on Instagram.

“I have never braced my core so hard,” Ledecky wrote. “It’s a great drill!”

“Try doing it breaststroke,” British Olympic 100m breaststroke champion and world-record holder Adam Peaty wrote.

“Is it wrong of me to think this is even more impressive than a few of your WR’s?!!!” wrote 1992 Olympic champion Summer Sanders.

MORE: The meet where Kathleen Ledecky became Katie Ledecky

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