U.S. Open: Nadal tops Thiem in 5-set marathon
Serena soars into semis; Americans Sloane Stephens, John Isner stopped short
Rafael Nadal began his U.S. Open quarter-final 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 stretched across and concluded after 2 a.m. Wednesday.
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.
When it ended, on an overhead by Thiem that sailed long, Nadal walked around the net to hug his opponent and whisper words of encouragement.
When Nadal makes it this far in New York, he usually doesn't stumble. He has now won seven U.S. Open quarter-finals 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.
On Friday, Nadal will take on a familiar foe with a berth in the final on the line: 2009 champion and No. 3 seed Juan Martin del Potro, who defeated No. 11 John Isner 6-7 (5), 6-3, 7-6 (4), 6-2.
Serena Williams began her U.S. Open quarter-final tentatively. Her shots lacked their usual sting, her attitude its usual conviction.
Williams put aside some early shakiness and an early deficit, turning things around with an eight-game run en route to a 6-4, 6-3 victory over No. 8 seed Karolina Pliskova for a spot in the semifinals. It was Williams' first win over a top-10 player this season.
"I was playing really not a good game," said Williams, who was a point from trailing 4-1 and did fall behind 4-2 while making 22 of her 30 unforced errors in the first set. "I was thinking, `You know, I can play better.' So that was the good news."
Pliskova offered this guess about what was happening to Williams: "Maybe she was a little bit nervous."
Maybe. But that didn't last long.
Pliskova is a big server and hitter in her own right, someone who briefly spent time at No. 1 in the WTA rankings and was the runner-up at the U.S. Open in 2016, when she beat Williams in the semifinals. The 36-year-old American did not compete in New York a year ago, because she gave birth to her daughter during the tournament.
Go back to 2015, and that was another semifinal departure for Williams, whose bid for a calendar-year Grand Slam was shockingly ended by Roberta Vinci.
"Well, I want to just be able to get past the semis here. It's been a few, couple, rough semis for me," Williams said. "But regardless, this has been a great road."
This time, Williams' semifinal opponent will be No. 19 seed Anastasija Sevastova of Latvia, who surprisingly beat defending champion Sloane Stephens 6-2, 6-3 earlier Tuesday.
Williams already proved at Wimbledon that she is capable of the sort of dominant performances she has shown over the years, making all the way to the final at the All England Club before losing. She'll hope to do one better now and claim a seventh U.S. Open title.
Her sluggish start against Pliskova came in the same 90-degree heat and 50-percent humidity that hampered John Isner in his quarter-final loss to Juan Martin del Potro on Tuesday afternoon, and Roger Federer in his fourth-round exit against John Millman a night earlier and prompted the tournament to suspend play in junior matches for a few hours.
With her older sister, Venus — the woman she beat in the third round — in her guest box, Williams looked tight. Her timing was off. She put a backhand into the net to get broken to 2-1 at the outset. Then, down 3-1, she faced three break points; if Pliskova won any, she would have led 4-1. But Pliskova did not manage to put any of Williams' serves in play on those key points.
"Too strong," Pliskova said.
Soon after that, Williams went from trailing 4-2 to not only taking the first set but also leading 4-0 in the second.
By the end, Williams compiled a 13-3 edge in aces, and 35-12 in total winners.
"She's playing with the same power. She can still serve well. I don't think there's any change with her game," Pliskova said. "She's just going for her shots."
Defending champ Stephens eliminated
First, there were four break points squandered, along with an early chance for the lead.
Next, three more wasted.
Pretty soon, Sloane Stephens' run at a U.S. Open repeat was lost too.
The defending champion was eliminated Tuesday, beaten by Anastasija Sevastova 6-2, 6-3 in the quarter-finals.
"I didn't play the big points well, and you don't win matches when you don't take your opportunities," Stephens said.
Stephens beat Sevastova in the same round last year en route to her first Grand Slam title, but she missed numerous chances to grab an early lead in the rematch and could never get back into the match.
Sevastova, the No. 19 seed from Latvia, will play Williams in her first Grand Slam semifinal.
That's further than it ever appeared Sevastova would get in tennis when she retired in May 2013, her body battered by muscular and back-related injuries. She returned nearly two years later and finally broke through on her third straight appearance in the U.S. Open quarterfinals.
"It was an amazing journey, this three, four years," she said.
John 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 against Juan Martin del Potro in muggy, energy-robbing heat at the U.S. Open.
Isner's bid to become the first American man in a dozen years to get to the final four at Flushing Meadows ended Tuesday with a 6-7 (5), 6-3, 7-6 (4), 6-2 loss to No. 3 seed del Potro, the Argentine who won the 2009 championship.
The temperature, more than 90 degrees (32 degrees Celsius), made things uncomfortable across the 3 1/2-hour match. So did the humidity, at about 50 per cent. Those kinds of conditions were a problem for Roger Federer when he was upset by 55th-ranked John Millman a night earlier, and Isner had all kinds of trouble, too — certainly more than del Potro did.
Things got so bad around the site that the tournament suspended junior matches for a few hours in the afternoon. The U.S. Tennis Association invoked its new extreme heat policy, which allows men to take a 10-minute break after the third set, but that clearly didn't help Isner, who quickly trailed 3-0 in the fourth.
But del Potro presented all sorts of problems.
His serve is almost as imposing as Isner's, while other elements of del Potro's game — returns and, most notably, his thunderous forehand, which often clocks in at more than 161 kph — are superior.
He now will face either defending champion and No. 1 seed Rafael Nadal or No. 9 Dominic Thiem in the semifinals on Friday. Nadal-Thiem was scheduled for later Tuesday night.
If Nadal wins that, he and del Potro would have a third consecutive Grand Slam meeting: del Potro lost to the 17-time major champ in the French Open semifinals and the Wimbledon quarter-finals.
Canadian advancing in junior
Canada's Leylah Fernandez is heading to the third round of the girls' draw at the U.S. Open.
The 15-year-old from Montreal downed Mylene Halemai of France 6-2, 6-2 on Tuesday.
Fernandez won 71 per cent of her points on first serve and broke her opponent six times.
The Canadian reached the semifinals of the French Open girls' draw earlier this year.
Fernandez will face unseeded Taisya Pachkaleva of Russia in the third round at Flushing Meadows.