A man can do just so much.
Juan Martin del Potro beat Rafa Nadal and Roger Federer to win the 2009 US Open. He overcame four wrist surgeries and reset his backhand. He forged his way back on tour, beat Rafa en route to capturing the Olympic silver medal in singles, led Argentina to the Davis Cup Championships and, here at the Open, reeled off perhaps the most inspiring runs to the semis since Jimmy Connors’ fabled 1991 march.
Del Potro almost quit in the fourth round against No. 6 seed Dominic Thiem before storming back to score an incredible, epic five-set upset. Then he again beat Federer just like he had eight years ago, and it looked like he might dismiss Nadal in the semis when he hit a backhand return of serve to break the Spaniard early in the opening set. Only an anarchistic bug that zoomed about the court interrupted Del Potro’s flow. A ball boy smashed the bug, and after Delpo won the first set, 6-4, Argentinian fans in the upper tier hoped their man’s massive forehand would smash Nadal’s will.
But Nadal, such a seasoned competitor, changed tactics. He stopped merely pounding Del Potro’s backhand. Rather, he played into the teeth of Delpo’s forehand, moved the big man around, opened the court and finished many a point to spaces as wide as the Argentinian pampas.
The big man’s legs were leaden. He was out of gas and out of answers. Yes, he pounded away. But Rafa is one of the very best defensive players in history. He absorbed Delpo’s blasts with ease, and started to hit winners himself.
Let the rout begin. Nadal won nine straight games in 41 one-sided minutes. The big man had few glimmers of hope. He hit himself in the forehead in despair. All the “Olés” by New York zealots couldn’t help the beloved Argie. Nadal won going away, 4-6, 6-0, 6-3, 6-2. The Spaniard, who’s collected 15 Slams, had won his 15th straight Grand Slam semifinal (Mr. Federer holds the record with 23 straight).
Now Nadal will seek his second Slam of the year, and, incredibly, if he wins, he and Roger will have won all four Slams in 2017. If he wins, it will be his third US Open title, his first since 2013, and his first hardcourt win in 35 tries.
But, to prevail, he will have to slay another giant.
Rafa has never lost to 6′ 8″ Kevin Anderson. The No. 32 ranked player, who is South Africa’s answer to Huck Finn, dismissed Pablo Carreno Busta today. But Nadal is vulnerable to big-hitting blasters like Nick Kyrgios, Dustin Brown and Gilles Muller. Still, John McEnroe said of Nadal tonight, “After the first set you cannot play any better than that.”
Rafa will be heavily favored in Sunday’s final. He should be the fresher of the two – he did not face a player ranked higher than No. 28 (del Potro). By contrast, Anderson beat the No. 17 (Sam Querrey) and No. 12 (Carreno Busta) seeds and must score his first victory against a world No. 1 to win the tournament. But Anderson’s play has been impressive. Don’t count him out.
Additional reporting: John Huston, David Renteria and Frances Aubrey