NEW YORK — Rafael Nadal retired from his U.S. Open semifinal with right knee pain that has dogged him on and off for years, sending Juan Martin del Potro into Sunday’s final against Novak Djokovic.
Nadal, a 17-time Grand Slam champion, mentioned retirement to the chair umpire midway through the second set, then threw in the towel after dropping the set. Del Potro had a 7-6 (3), 6-2 lead.
Later, the 13-time major winner Djokovic swept Japan’s Kei Nishikori 6-3, 6-4, 6-2 to reach his seventh U.S. Open final in his last eight appearances.
Nadal said that he first felt a knee problem in his second- or third-round match last week and that it acted up again Friday starting in the fifth game.
“I said to my box immediately that I felt something on the knee,” Nadal said. “After that, I was just trying to see if in some moment the thing can improve during the match. But no, was not the day.
Nadal’s right leg was taped just below the knee in the first set and again in the second, after he had ripped off the tape. The Spaniard winced and limped in the second set.
“Yeah, I waited as much as I can,” said Nadal, who played 15 hours, 54 minutes on court in his first five matches, his most ever en route to a Slam semifinal. “You could imagine very difficult for me to say goodbye before the match finish. But at some point you have to take a decision. It was so difficult for me to keep playing at the same time that way, having too much pain.
“That was not a tennis match at the end, no? It was just one player playing, the other one staying on the other side of the court.
“I hate to retire, but stay one more set out there playing like this will be too much for me.”
After del Potro won the set, Nadal took off his headband, sat down and pulled off his wristbands while a trainer spoke to him. He rose after a quick chat, shook the chair umpire’s hand and then told del Potro.
“When I saw him with bad movements [in the second set], I start to play aggressive, putting him running a lot. Then he decide to stop,” del Potro said. “I love to play with Rafa because he’s the biggest fighter in this sport. I don’t like to see him suffering on court like today, so I’m sad for him.”
The 32-year-old Nadal quit during a match for the second time in four Grand Slams this year. He pulled out during an Australian Open quarterfinal with an upper right leg injury against Marin Cilic in January.
Nadal has been forced out of tournaments due to left and right knee problems over the last decade, withdrawing before 2009 Wimbledon and the 2012 Olympics and during the 2010 Australian Open. Tendonitis has dogged him.
“I cannot compare the knee with other times because the pain on the knee is always very similar,” he said. “The problem is this time was something little bit more aggressive because was in one movement. Was not something progressive. So I don’t know what can happen in a couple of days or in a couple of weeks.
“Is not an injury that tells you six months off, you are back. Is maybe an injury that in one week you feel better, is an injury that maybe in six months you don’t feel better. I know what is going on with the knee.”
Still, he retains the No. 1 ranking no matter if del Potro or Djokovic lifts the U.S. Open trophy Sunday. In 2017, Nadal won his first Slams in three years (the French and U.S. Opens), then won his 11th French Open this year.
He is 45-4 this season, with half the losses being injury retirements.
“I know the things are going the right way,” Nadal said. “I am playing well. I am enjoying on court. I am having a lot of success. I am very competitive at the age of 32. Lot of people in this room, including myself, never will think that at the age of 32 I will be here fighting for titles, fighting for the first positions of the rankings.
“All my career everybody say that because of my style, I will have a short career. I still here.”
Del Potro, a 29-year-old Argentine who is no stranger to injury, made his second career Grand Slam final and his first since his epic run to the 2009 U.S. Open title.
Del Potro, who beat Nadal and Roger Federer at the 2009 U.S. Open, missed three of the last eight U.S. Opens due to left and right wrist surgeries. He contemplated retiring in 2015, during a two-year stretch where he played just two tournaments.
“I didn’t expect to get into another Grand Slam final,” del Potro said. “I had my biggest memories on the tennis court playing on this court … but I was a kid. Now I’m much older. I will try to enjoy one more day.”
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