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U.S. Open: Rafael Nadal's epic victory over Dominic Thiem was 'special'

Quality of play is off the charts in match that ended past 2 a.m. at sweltering Ashe Stadium.

Rafael Nadal reacts after he wins the fifth

Rafael Nadal reacts after he wins the fifth set tie break to defeat Dominic Thiem during a quarterfinal round of the U.S. Open tennis tournament at the USTA Billie Jean King National Tennis Center on Tuesday, Sept. 4, 2018. Photo Credit: Kathleen Malone-Van Dyke

Rafael Nadal and Dominic Thiem chased each other around Arthur Ashe Stadium for four hours and 49 minutes in their U.S. Open quarterfinal, starting on Tuesday night and carrying on until 2:03 Wednesday morning. They grappled into the extra innings of a fifth-set tiebreaker, under a wet blanket of suffocating heat and humidity. They combined for 1,352 strokes of peak-level tennis.

In the end, after Thiem, serving at 5-6 in the breaker, chased down a deep Nadal lob only to send his forehand long, Nadal said he felt sorry that such an effort by Thiem had gone unrewarded.

“Well,” Thiem said, “I don’t think he’s really sorry.”

In fact, both men appreciated the struggle that ended with Nadal’s 0-6, 6-4, 7-5, 6-7 (4), 7-6 (5) survival. “I mean, it’s cruel sometimes, tennis,” Thiem said, “because I think this match didn’t really deserve a loser. But there has to be one.”

The top-ranked Nadal is two victories away from his 18th major-tournament title. He could wind up being the first back-to-back Open men’s champion since Roger Federer won a fifth straight in 2008. Thiem, the 25-year-old Austrian playing in his 20th Grand Slam event, goes home two victories shy of his second Slam final. He lost to Nadal in this year’s French Open championship.

“Sad for him,” Nadal said, “because when you arrive at this moment, he did all the things well to win the match. Me, too, I think. I fought until the end.

“But, you know, winning, losing….In some way, when you give everything that you have, win or lose, it’s just that someone has to lose, someone has to win. That’s part of the game. But the personal satisfaction when you give everything and you play with the right attitude is the same.”

That Thiem bolted to a first-set bagel, Nadal insisted, was purely a matter of facing “a great opponent. He’s a top guy, being honest. He’s one of the best guys on tour. He always plays and practices with a great attitude.”

Nadal switched rackets after that first set and was asked about possible trouble with his strings’ tension, but “I am not the guy that looks at the string or at the [friends’] box or look at the racket,” he said. “I am the guy to look at myself. Nothing about the string. Nothing about the tension. I needed to change the dynamic, but the first step to change that dynamic is not find an excuse on the racket or the string or something. I am a critic with myself. That’s all.

“I did a very bad set. He played well.”

There was no getting away from the fact that it was extremely hot and that Ashe Stadium, since the retractable roof’s superstructure was completed two years ago, now blocks any cooling breezes from reaching the court. But both men reminded that they have played in worse conditions.

“Tough out there. Not crazy,” Nadal said.

Thiem said, “We’re used to [heat]. It’s not only here.”

What was unique was the intensity and efficiency of the battle, an accelerant for spectator involvement. “What is important about the match,” Nadal said, “is the level of tennis, the dramatic match. When things happen like this, the atmosphere and the crowd becomes very special.”

For Thiem, to scuffle for so long and so hard and have Nadal make “one more point than me….Of course, now I’m devastated,” he said. “But in a few days I will look back and will remember how great it was to play, in front of a packed Arthur Ashe, this great match.”

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