Rafael Nadal already was dealing during the U.S. Open with a witches’ brew of excessive heat, two uncommonly long matches, Flushing Meadows’ punishing hard courts and his own demanding commitment to extended baseline toil.
But what brought the defense of his 2017 title to a premature end on Friday was his chronically troublesome knees. Four games into the second set of their semifinal, still on virtually even terms with Juan Martin del Potro, Nadal said he “felt something in the knee.” By the end of the set, he was gone, del Potro advancing, 7-6 (3), 6-2, retired.
“I’m sad for him,” del Potro said. “But I’m also happy, too.”
Del Potro, who won his only major title at the 2009 Open when he was only 20, has spent much of the last decade dealing with a series of wrist surgeries and now has risen to No. 3 in the world. He knows about being sidetracked by injury.
“Yes,” Nadal said of del Potro, “he’s a player that went through a lot of issues during his career, like me. I know how tough is this thing. I know how much frustration can be when you can’t do the thing that you want to. Happy to see him be back in his top level.”
Not, though, under the circumstances.
Nadal, of course, has won 17 Grand Slam events in his career, including three U.S. titles, but has missed eight major tournaments over the years because his body wasn’t sound. A knee issue also forced him to retire during this year’s Australian Open quarterfinal.
He routinely refuses to discuss physical maladies during tournaments, having refused to talk of an aching right knee earlier in the Open. Besides, he had carried on through a third-round victory against Karen Khachanov in four hours and 23 minutes, and a four hour, 49 minute duel with Dominic Thiem in the quarterfinals.
In the early going against del Potro, Nadal hardly displayed a fear and trembling. He was playing with his usual persistence, punctuating every shot with his typically loud grunts—as if hitting a 2 1/16-ounce ball was the heaviest of heavy lifting.
He saved two set points with del Potro serving at 5-4 and, at 1-3 in the tiebreak, Nadal’s forehand drop shot clipped the net and slowly hopped over, an apparent portent of the worm turning.
Two games later, though, Nadal was hurting and del Potro knew it. Immediately after Nadal received a trainer’s visit for tape on his right knee during the changeover, he hit an awkward forehand long while backpeddling on break point to fall behind, 3-1.
“It’s difficult for me to say good-bye before the match finished,” Nadal said. “But this 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.”
He was not about to blame this latest physical setback on his known regimen of exhaustive training. “Is just my work, my normal thing every day,” he said. “All my career, everybody say that because of my style, I will have a short career. I still here. I still here because I love what I’m doing. I still have the passion. I’m going to keep fighting and working hard.
“Lot of people, including myself, never will think that at the age of 32 I will be here fighting for titles. I’m having two great years”—adding the French and U.S. Open titles in 2017 and his 11th French championship earlier this year. “This year has been a fantastic year. Until this moment.”