Enough about Rafael Nadal’s U.S. Open quarterfinal victory on Wednesday. To both hard-core tennis fans and casual observers, the purpose of the match merely was to set up a long-overdue duel in Flushing Meadows between Nadal and Roger Federer.
Nadal held up his end of the deal by thrashing 19-year-old Russian Andrey Rublev, 6-1, 6-2, 6-2, and the topic turned immediately to a match that still wasn’t inevitable. Federer had not yet taken the court for Wednesday night’s match against the dangerous Juan Martin del Potro, whose career apotheosis was defeating Federer in the 2009 Open final.
Still, what about a Nadal-Federer heavyweight bout? Throughout the tournament, Nadal stuck to day-to-day business. Nothing was preordained, he kept reminding. Early in the tournament, he even mentioned that he would prefer to play an easier opponent than Federer in the semifinals.
“I cannot change my opponent,” Nadal said. “It’s something strange that we have not played here in New York because we have played in all the important tournaments around the world. Of course it would be special to play Roger the first time here. But Juan Martin is a very tough player, so let’s see . . . ”
Would Nadal watch on television? “You know, in Spain, we eat dinner late, and they don’t play until 9 . . . ”
This century’s two most dominant male players, Nadal and Federer have faced off 37 times. They have a combined 34 major-tournament trophies — a record 19 for Federer and 15 for Nadal. They have tangled five times at the French Open, four times at the Australian and three times at Wimbledon.
Mostly because of his superiority on clay, Nadal leads their head-to-head series, 23-14. Nadal also has a 9-3 lead in Grand Slam events and has won six of their last seven matches in those events.
But Federer, recently thought to be on his last legs at 36, upped the ante by beating the 31-year-old Nadal for this year’s Australian Open title. Then Nadal, with Federer skipping the event, won his record 10th French Open, and Federer answered by winning a record eighth Wimbledon after Nadal was eliminated in the fourth round.
On Wednesday, Nadal declared himself “excited to be in the semifinals,” no matter the opposition. He had muddled around a bit for a couple of rounds before finding his form, but in thoroughly dismantling Rublev, Nadal assured that he would remain the last teenager to win a Slam. (He was 19 when he won his first, the 2005 French Open.)
“Today exactly happened what I expect, the way he was playing,” Rublev said. “He gave me a lesson — 1, 2 and 2. I know that I can play this match much better. The score will not be 1, 2, 2.
“Maybe 3, 4, 4.”
Before the match, Nadal was told that he had been Rublev’s childhood idol. “This is the negative part of being old,” Nadal said. The positive is the perceived admiration Federer has for Nadal, and vice versa. Nadal was asked to comment on that.
He hesitated, then smiled broadly. “I don’t want to look like I gonna be his boyfriend,” he said.