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Rafael Nadal quits injured; Novak Djokovic, Juan Martin del Potro in U.S. Open final

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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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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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Novak Djokovic tops Rafael Nadal in another Wimbledon marathon semifinal

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Is Novak Djokovic back? Certainly looked like it Friday night and Saturday afternoon at Wimbledon.

The 12-time Grand Slam champion outlasted top-ranked Rafael Nadal 6-4, 3-6, 7-6 (9), 3-6, 10-8 to reach Sunday’s final at the All England Club, where the Serb plays South African Kevin Anderson.

“It’s hard to pick the words,” said Djokovic, the 12th seed who reached his first Grand Slam final since the 2016 U.S. Open. “I mean, I’m just going through things that flash back the last 15 months and everything I’ve been through to get here, to get to the final and to win against the best player in the world. … I’m just overwhelmed.

“These kind of matches you live for, you work for.”

Djokovic and Nadal, two men with a combined 29 Grand Slam singles titles, played the first three sets Friday — after Anderson and John Isner‘s 6-hour, 36-minute epic — before Wimbledon’s 11 p.m. curfew suspended the match overnight.

The Centre Court roof remained closed for Saturday’s resumption because at least one of the players (Djokovic, presumably) preferred it.

They were on court for 5 hours, 14 minutes total, which would have been the longest Wimbledon semifinal in history before Friday.

“Very special,” said Djokovic, who improved to 27-25 against Nadal in the most prolific men’s rivalry in the 50-year Open Era. “It really could have gone either way, I think. … It was very clear that very few things separated the two players. Basically, until the last shot I didn’t know that I was going to win.”

Djokovic made his first Grand Slam final since the end of a two-year stretch where the Serb was the world’s top player. He once held all four Grand Slam titles, something neither Roger Federer nor Nadal has done.

Djokovic’s struggles the last two years accompanied off-court life changes.

He cited “private issues” in summer 2016, split from coach Boris Becker that fall, was coached by Andre Agassi for less than a year, missed the 2017 U.S. Open for an elbow injury, then underwent surgery to fix it in January.

He has won two tournaments in the last two years and none in the last 12 months, his longest drought since his first of 68 ATP titles at age 19 in 2006.

But on Friday and Saturday, Djokovic packaged mental strength, physical endurance, shot-making talent and big-stage guts like we haven’t seen in two years.

Now Djokovic, the lowest-ranked man in a Wimbledon final since Mark Philippoussis in 2003, is favored against the eighth seed Anderson to win his fourth Wimbledon. Djokovic has won their last five matches, including at Wimbledon in 2015.

Anderson, the oldest first-time Wimbledon finalist in the 50-year Open Era, eyes his first Grand Slam title after playing a combined 10 hours, 50 minutes between the quarterfinals (upsetting Roger Federer 13-11 in the fifth) and semifinals.

“Hopefully we can first of all play, both of us,” Djokovic said in exhaustion. “It’s been a roller-coaster ride for him in the last couple of rounds, but he had a day off, which means a lot. I wish I could have one. … It’s an incredible achievement for me after what I’ve been through. I’m trying to digest that.”

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