Closing the Ashe and Armstrong stadium roofs, the inanimate stars of this year’s U.S. Open, was quick and efficient. But for Rafael Nadal and Kevin Anderson, the returning finalists from last year’s tournament, putting a lid on their separate rip-roaring third-round matches early Friday evening was another matter altogether.
Eventually, against two of the sport’s rising young bucks, they prevailed. But Nadal needed four hours and 23 minutes, through four energetic sets, before finally getting his nose ahead of 22-year-old Russian Karen Khachanov. And Anderson took five sets, in three hours and 43 minutes, to dispose of 19-year-old Canadian Denis Shapovalov.
The scores give a fairly accurate picture of events — Nadal won, 5-7, 7-5, 7-6 (7), 7-6 (3) and Anderson by 4-6, 6-3, 6-4, 4-6, 6-4 —but the numbers don’t convey how the players had to endure being stretched on the rack of tortuously tense rallies and emotions.
The top-seeded Nadal had his back to the wall for long stretches against No. 27 Khachanov, and not just because Nadal always takes that geographic stance — receiving serves so far behind the baseline that he nearly is in the stands. The 6-6 Khachanov pounded 22 aces — Nadal did not have a single one in the match — and kept blasting deep groundstrokes.
“A tough one,” Nadal said. “It was a physically demanding match. A mentally demanding match. That’s why we practice every day, to play these kind of matches in a great atmosphere in front of an amazing crowd.”
The fifth-seeded Anderson, who is 6-8, meanwhile wasn’t able to break the scurrying 6-foot Shapovalov, seeded 28th, with his big serve. Anderson struck 11 aces but Shapovalov totaled 13, and Shapovalov finished with 59 winners to Anderson’s 31.
“He really punishes you on anything that he has time on,” Anderson said of Shapovalov, “and sometimes even when he doesn’t have time. Really had to dig deep to get through that one.”
The two matches played out almost simultaneously, Nadal-Khachanov in Ashe and Anderson-Shapovalov in Armstrong. And when a light rain arrived on the Billie Jean King tennis center grounds at 4:25 p.m., both matches were late in the second set. And, in both cases, the assumed favorites were down — Nadal at 5-7, 5-5 and Anderson at 4-6, 4-2.
Within 10 minutes, the two-year-old, 800-ton Ashe roof and the new 284-toon Armstrong roof were closed — leaving everyone dry except for four perspiring combatants — and the serious scuffling resumed, with both arenas rocking.
Anderson compared the feeling in Armstrong to being “like a coliseum, almost, constant noise the whole time.” Shapovalov said, “By the fifth set, the stands got packed. It was a battle out there. A really fun match to be a part of.”
Khachanov, too, could see the positives. “After a match like this,” he said, “when you give everything, OK, you didn’t win. But it can give me a lot of experience, confidence. And hopefully it will bring me where I want to be.”
In a slightly quieter Grandstand match, top-seeded American John Isner defeated Serbia’s Dusan Lajovic in four sets.
Going forward? Of Khachanov, Nadal said, “He’s young. He has everything. He has a great future to come.”
Anderson assumed the same of Shapovalov. “You’re definitely going to be seeing him in the future.”