In the late afternoon Thursday was the U.S. Open quarterfinals' pauper division, with 12th-seeded Mikhail Youzhny outlasting No. 25 Stanislas Wawrinka in a knock-down, drag-out affair that lasted four hours and assured the Arthur Ashe Stadium spectators that this is no hit-and-giggle sport.
That left the evening for princely Rafael Nadal, the world's top-ranked player, to strut his stuff against fellow Spaniard Fernando Verdasco, all of it played out amid the Open's new normal of swirling, buffeting winds.
Youzhny's 3-6, 7-6 (7), 3-6, 6-3, 6-3 victory over Wawrinka was the far more punishing of the two matches, and the pair already had put in long hours to arrive at the quarters. Nadal, though he had his serve broken for the first time in the tournament by No. 8 Verdasco in the third game, regrouped on his way to a 7-5, 6-3, 6-4 decision. Verdasco never saw another break point.
Of the dramatic improvement in Nadal's serve, both in speed and placement, Nadal offers no silver bullet nor recent emphasis. "All my life I worked a lot on my serve," he said. "Not just this summer, no; all my life."
He further argued that he had not been serving well in hardcourt events leading up to the Open, "but I started to serve well the week before the tournament, a few days before the tournament started. I changed a little bit the grip, but that's all."
The result has been one more arrow in Nadal's already full quiver of weapons. He was in no danger of having to play 5 hours, 14 minutes against Verdasco, as the two did in Nadal's epic 2009 Australian Open semifinal win.
Though the first set took 59 minutes, Nadal steadily put distance between himself and Verdasco thereafter, an ability neither the Russian Youzhny nor the Swiss Wawrinka enjoyed in their rough-and-tumble duel.
Wawrinka was coming off a 4-hour, 28-minute five-set grind against American Sam Querrey, two days after he upset No. 4 Andy Murray in a rugged four-setter.
Youzhny had spent 10 hours and 36 minutes on court in his four previous matches, and guessed he would "start to feel" the effects by today. But he is through to the Open semifinals for the second time in his career, matching his 2006 progress at Flushing Meadows.
Now he gets to play Nadal. And hopes to avoid the royal treatment.