Rafael Nadal had to get up off the mat several times Tuesday night to stay in the US Open and keep his title defense alive with an epic 0-6, 6-4, 7-5, 6-7(4), 7-6(5) victory over Dominic Thiem in 4 hours, 49 minutes in a match that ended at 2:03am.
“It’s been a great a battle. The conditions were tough. A lot of humidity,” Nadal said. “I just keep going. Being honest, I feel very sorry for Dominic. he’s a great guy, great player.”
Facing Thiem for an 11th time, first off of clay, the Austrian came out on fire winning the first six games of the match in just 23 minutes to take the first set.
“Wake up!” Nadal said of how he changed things. “It was a very tough start. The only thing I think was finish this first set and forget about what happened.”
A shellshocked Nadal settled down as Thiem fell out of his zone, and got on the board to stop the run. And later he got the break to even things.
But Thiem found the range again and served for the third set at 5-4. Nadal proved worthy of the challenge and won three games to pull ahead.
Thiem struck back with an early break in the fourth. Nadal got back to even to 4-all. Nadal avoided peril at 5-all, executing a serve-volley down break point.
Serving to stay in at 5-6, Theim faced his demise but Nadal missed a sitter volley that would have set up match point.
In the ensuing breaker, Thiem got a quick mini-break, went up 3-0 and held on to force a fifth set, the first played on Ashe this year.
Nadal had chances at 2-all but Thiem won four straight points to get out of a 15-40 jam. Then Nadal had Thiem once again in trouble with the Austrian serving 0-40 at 5-all. But again Rafa couldn’t convert.
In the breaker, Nadal got the quick mini-break, a wild forehand gave it right back. And back and forth they went some more. Serving 4-5, Nadal got a return error from Thiem. 5-all. Then Nadal couldn’t put away a smash, but got a look at a volley and this one he finished.
On the first match point, it was Thiem’s turn to put away a smash, but instead he flew it well long. And Rafa moves on.
“There is always the passion to keep going, play one more point,” Nadal said. “Keep going always. That’s the only way I’m able to be where I am today.”
Nadal finished with 55 winners, 49 unforced, but was only 5/17 when he had a break point. Thiem, who was overhitting at times, had 58 winners against 74 unforced errors. He broke 6 of 13 and actually led Nadal – thanks to that first set whitewash (24 to 7) – in total points 171 to 165.
In the heat of the day, Juan Martin del Potro outlasted John Isner 6-7(5), 6-3, 7-6(4), 6-2 in a grueling 3 hours, 31 minutes.
Their third meeting of the season followed a predictable script with both guys booming serves and cracking forehands. Early on, it was Isner hitting the ball just a little better, and connecting on some backhands.
Isner forced the tiebreaker where he often does he best work, and he did again coming on top 7-5. But early in the second, it appeared the stifling heat and humidity were getting to the American who had played five more sets and almost four more hours en route to their quarterfinal meeting.
Bending over and looking in distress, Isner was in trouble. Del Potro pounced to level. Isner found some life in the third after a quick clothing change gave both some AC. And with both guys eyeing a 10-break heat break, the third set was critical, but this time del Potro continued to crack serves and forehands, saved break chances, and this time he was the one doing the damage on a weary Isner in the breaker.
And when they came back from the heat break in the fourth, del Potro resumed domination, coasting to his third US Open semifinal and is 10th US Open match win in his last 11.
“I think I played very solid this game,” said del Potro. “In particular I made good returns every service games. I had a lot of chances to break. I did couple of times during the game. I think I play on a smart game today. I saw John a little bit tired also. That’s give me a little bit more energy to keep trying.
“I played a good match. I don’t know if I’m playing my best tennis ever, but I’m feeling good. I reach another semifinals in this Grand Slam, which means something big to me. I’m very happy for that.”
Del Potro smacked 49 winners to just 14 unforced errors, and 14 aces.
“I’m very happy for my level, for what all has been through to get in this position now,” he said. “I think it doesn’t matter the final result in the tournament. I just enjoying playing tennis again. I’m enjoying a lot the crowds like this. I like to play big battles with other guys. That’s makes me feels alive again.”
With the way the schedule works, del Potro won’t be back on court until Friday, when temperatures are also expected to be much cooler.
“I think it’s not easy to play under this weather, but it’s the same thing for all players,” del Potro added. “You have to deal with the preparation and the heat. But I did little bit better than John, and now I have enough time to recover myself.”
Isner was trying to become the first American man to make the US Open semifinals in 12 years since Andy Roddick in 2006.
“It’s tough conditions out there, no doubt,” Isner said. “It’s very humid I think just in that center court. Air is pretty still for whatever reason. Maybe it’s the roof structure. It’s pretty humid and takes its toll on us players, myself, and I think Juan.
“But I think all in all, he probably handled it a little bit better. It definitely is tough conditions, but I wish I could have done a little bit better out there. It just wasn’t to be. Look, he’s so good. It was a tough match.”
Isner added that he could have lost up to 10 pounds of weight during the match.
“I can tell you I don’t know what I weighed before the match,” Isner said. “I did not weigh myself, but I can tell you I lost a lot of weight out there. Sweating like that, I mean, I have practices and stuff where I’m sweating and my shoes are sloshing and I’m changing, so every bit of eight to ten pounds, but it’s easy to put back on. Not as bad as it sounds. Eat and drink a lot of water.”
On Wednesday, the final two spots in the men’s semifinals will be filled. In the afternoon, it’s a rematch of the 2014 final as Marin Cilic takes on Kei Nishikori. Nishikori leads 8-6 and won their only meeting in the last 18 months, that at Monte Carlo this April.
It’s also their fourth meeting at the US Open with Cilic winning the last two including the 2014 final.
In the evening, the much-anticipated Roger Federer-Novak Djokovic quarterfinal was spoiled by unheralded John Millman. Djokovic beat Millman in their only meeting at Queen’s this year 6-2, 6-1. But after his stunner over the Swiss, anything’s possible for the 29-year-old.
“Why not?” Millman said. “Again, I’ll have to improve a lot on the last time I played him. He’s an incredible player. I think he’s in some really good form right now, too. Yeah, but why not? I think it’s a disservice to who I am if I go out there and don’t have that belief.”
WEDNESDAY US OPEN SCHEDULE
ARTHUR ASHE STADIUM 12:00 PM
N. Osaka (JPN)  vs. L. Tsurenko (UKR)
M. Cilic (CRO)  vs. K. Nishikori (JPN) 
C. Suarez Navarro (ESP)  vs. M. Keys (USA) 
N. Djokovic (SRB)  vs. J. Millman (AUS)
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