Nadal an imposing force at U.S. Open
Rafael Nadal says he's never been in better shape physically and mentally entering the U.S. Open semifinals, and if that's the case, Mikhail Youzhny, Novak Djokovic and even Roger Federer better hold on to their title ambtions.
In his 7-5, 6-3, 6-4 victory over Fernando Verdasco in a wind swept quarterfinal on Thursday night, the Spaniard showed off some of the elements that have made him the world's top player: true grit, incredible balance, blinding movement, an ability to adjust and readjust on a dime.
At one point late in the third set, Nadal rushed to the net and Verdasco set a low, screaming backhand at his feet. He leaned quickly toward his left, scooped the ball up from behind him, poked it deep and then did a 360-degree turn and went right back into a ready position. A stunned Verdasco then buried a forehand into the net.
That was not the shot of the night for Nadal, but his matador's pirouette is what will be recalled. Given how hard the wind was pushing at he and Verdasco, both hit plenty of highlight reel shots on the lines. Fellow Spaniard Verdasco valiantly tried to win his first match in 11 attempts against Nadal, but he's the lesser lefthander in the rivalry, who can produce just as much power, but has nowhere near the accuracy and doesn't have the sense of the big moments like Nadal does.
What the 24-year-old world No. 1 has been doing all summer is conducting a brutish symphony of shot selection, choosing the right times to unleash heavy groundstrokes, charge the net, knife low slices, hit behind his opponents. While it's Nadal's fathomless reserve and mental toughness that's often discussed, it's sometimes forgotten just how much he's improved since he won his first Grand Slam title at the 2005 French Open. His serve is much bigger and has more variety, he is about 100 times more confident at the net, he can flatten out his backhand or chop it low, and his forehand down the line on the run is more dependable.
Be that as it may, the key for Nadal coming into the U.S. Open was to be healthy.
"This year I know how important is the U.S. Open for me now," Nadal said, "and I know I have to arrive to this tournament fresh if I want to have any chance to have a very good result. I think I did. I am at the right round without problems, so that's very positive.”
When he reached the 2008 semis against Andy Murray, the fire in his belly was soaking wet. When he reached the final four in 2009 against Juan Martin Del Potro, his stomach was torn up.
“In 2008, if we speak about the level of tennis, I think I was ready to do something very important here,” Nadal said. “But mentally I was destroyed in that moment of the season. (Winning) Roland Garros and Wimbledon (back to back) for the first time, victory in Toronto, semifinals in Cincinnati, and (Olympic) champion, I think I started that match in semifinals against Andy without energy. Without energy, it's impossible to have any chance to win one semifinal.
Last year I played against unbelievable player like Del Potro. He was playing amazing level, but at the same time, I had three centimeters of abdominal tear."
Nadal will confront Russian Mikhail Youzhny in the semis, who has had a whale of a tournament. On Thursday, the Russian veteran cooled off the red-hot Stan Wawrinka 3-6, 7-6, 3-6, 6-3, 6-3 in four hours. Nadal clearly recalls his quarterfinal loss to Youzhny here in 2006, when he came into the tournament after his second Roland Garros crown and a first-time appearance in the Wimbledon final and played too short and too nervously in a four-set defeat.
Nadal was a lesser player then, but no excuses — he learned quickly on that day that he needed to adjust to the faster brand of hard-court tennis.
“It was a painful match for me, 2006,” he said. “I arrived playing so so, but during the tournament I was playing better and better. I think I lost that match because I was too anxious. The match started bad, one set for him. But after that I won the second, and I had a set point I think in the third with easy, easy ball.
"It was very difficult match. He's a great player, very aggressive, very flat shots. This court I think adapts very well to his game. Gonna be very difficult to beat him. I have to play aggressive, because if I am losing court against him, gonna be impossible to come back.”
In reaching the semis, Youzhny didn't have to face No. 4 Murray, who Wawrinka had upset, but he did chop down the giant John Isner, stymie the capable Spaniard Tommy Robredo, and then stayed the course over the shotmaker Wawrinka. The Russian fondly recalls his win over Nadal in 2006 and not so fondly his semifinal loss to Andy Roddick in the semis.
But at the age of 28, he's creative and powerful and ambitious to reach his first major final. Whether he attacks Nadal the right way this time around is questionable, but he's not going into the match as a greenhorn with no clue as how to bother the Spaniard.
“Semifinal is good, but of course you want more,” he said.