For a match that, if both players were at their best, would have had five sets written all over it, it was a bitterly disappointing end for the World No. 1 and defending champion Rafael Nadal. Despite motioning for a trainer early in a gripping first set of thundering blows against Juan Martin Del Potro, by the second set it was clear Nadal’s movement was hampered by his knee, resulting in his retiring at the end of it.
The first set started off at a blistering pace with a break for each and a matching brace of breaks later in the set as both men fought for a foothold in the first set. Nadal’s trademark tenacity saw him break the Tower of Tandil as Del Potro attempted to serve for the first set, but once Nadal surrendered a second mini-break I the tie-break, it looked like it would certainly be a one-set lead for Del Potro.
From there, Nadal managed to whether a barrage from Del Potro, fending off a couple of break points in his first service game of the second set, but was not so lucky in the next as the 2009 champion finally hit home for the lead. Nadal managed a little more resistance before being broken for Del Potro to take the second set, at which point the Spaniard had no option to pull the rip-cord.
An emotional-looking Nadal said to reporters: “As everybody knows, I had an issue, it was in the second or third match. Then I think was little bit better. I think was 2-All in the first, 15-Love, something like this in the first set, that I felt. I said to my box immediately that I felt something on the knee. 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.
“I waited as much as I can. You could imagine very difficult for me to say good-bye 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 retired (sic), but stay one more set out there playing like this will be too much for me.”
Del Potro is no stranger to injury woes – having had no less than four wrist surgeries (three on his left, one on the right) and for many he will be the heart-felt pick for Sunday’s final. In 2009 he same from 1-2 down against the then dominant favourite Roger Federer to stun the Swiss to win his first Grand Slam final, before tumbling down a wrist-injury rabbit hole.
He said, after the match: “I saw him suffering a lot during the second set. I was trying just to do my game. But, of course, I saw Rafa with some pains. I say to myself that just stay focus on my game, don’t look at him because you never know what could happen in that situations.
“But, of course, when I saw him with bad movements, I start to play aggressive, putting him running a lot. Then he decide to stop.
“I cannot believe that I will have a chance to play another Grand Slam finals in here, which is my favourite tournament. So it would be special to me. Would be a big challenge, as well, because I’ve been fighting with many, many problems to get in this moment.
“I think I’ve been doing a good tournament. And in the finals, anything can happen. If I win, great. If not, I been playing a great tournament and I will be happy anyways. When I played Roger nine years ago, he was the favourite to win, as well. I will try to make the surprise again.”
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The second semi-final pitted Novak Djokovic against Kei Nishikori in a US Open semi-final for the second time. Four years ago, Nishikori had already come through two tiring five-setters and shocked the favourite, Djokovic in four sets to make his first and only Slam final.
Nishikori had already come through a tough five setter against his vanquisher in that final, Marin Cilic, and but Djokovic was not hanging around. He fought hard to finally get a break on his fifth chance in Nishikori’s first service game, and it was enough to keep the fleet-footed Japanese player at bay.
Djokovic again had Nishikori on the back foot in the second set opener, but five break points came and went with no joy for the Serbian. He even had to stave off break points on his own serve, and had Nishikori been able to convert, he might have had a chance to keep himself in the match
Instead Djokovic got his reward with another single break to help him along to the second set. From that point it looked more like one way traffic for Djokovic, breaking Nishikori twice to book a spot in his eighth US Open final.
After the match he said: “I was coming into today’s match knowing I’m going to play a player who is very quick and takes away a lot of the time from his opponent, just likes to go for his shots. I knew that coming into the match if I managed to sustain that speed of his shots, so to say, the game style, that I’ll have my chance kind of to break through and to make him feel uncomfortable and start making errors.
“That’s what happened. I thought in the important moments I came up with some good second serves, some good first serves. I was returning well. I was putting constantly pressure on him, trying to move him around the court, take away the rhythm from him, not give him the same look always.
“The match was really, really good from my side.”
Djokovic has a commanding head to head over Del Potro, and is currently on a three-match winning streak in their 14-4 head to head, but was taking nothing for granted.
He continued: “I personally like him very much, not just as a player but as a person. He’s a dear friend, someone that I respect a lot. We all felt for his struggles with injuries that kept him away from the tour for two, three years.
“But he was always a top five player in the eyes I think of everyone. Even when he dropped his ranking and started to, you know, work his way up, but we all knew that he has a capacity and a quality to get to the point where he is at the moment. It was just a matter of time.”
The US Open 2018 Men’s final is scheduled on Arthur Ashe Stadium on Sunday at 4pm (9pm BST).
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