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Rafael Nadal defeats Matteo Berrettini in U.S. Open semifinal

Rafael Nadal hits a backhand against Matteo Berrettini

Rafael Nadal hits a backhand against Matteo Berrettini in the men's semifinals during the U.S. Open at the USTA Billie Jean King National Tennis Center in Flushing on Friday. Credit: Newsday/J. Conrad Williams Jr.

If Rafael Nadal can’t hold off this sudden threat of youth in Grand Slam tennis then, forget it, it can’t be done.

The hunger of the younger was on full display in the U.S. Open semifinals Friday, as Nadal held off 23-year-old Matteo Berrettini in the second match, 7-6 (6), 6-4, 6-1 after 23-year-old Daniil Medvedev got past veteran Grigor Dimitrov in the first.

That made Medvedev the youngest U.S. finalist since 2010 when Novak Djokovic, then 23, played for the title. He was beaten by one Rafael Nadal in what was the first of three times that Nadal, now 33, was champion at Flushing Meadows. It was one of 18 major-tournament crowns for Nadal — second only to Roger Federer’s 20.

“Super happy to be back in the final of the U.S. Open,” said Nadal, calling Medvedev “one of the most solid players on the tour. He’s making the steps forward every single week. But you can’t expect it to be easy in the final.”

Friday’s match was only the eighth major-tournament appearance for Berrettini. His first was the 2018 Australian and his previous best finish was the fourth round at this year’s Wimbledon.

A decade older than those new faces, his hair thinning a bit, Nadal was left as the last man to stand up for his generation following the upset losses by Federer and Djokovic earlier in the Open. Against Berrettini — 6-foot-6, able not only to muscle powerful serves and forehands but unafraid to employ touch drop shots and volleys — Nadal had no easy chore.

Tennis’ back-and-forth action always guarantees to turn heads, and the Nadal-Berrettini duel certainly caught the eye of 24,210 packed into Arthur Ashe Stadium. The two wrestled to a first-break tiebreaker, with Berrettini saving six break points.

In the tiebreaker, begun with a Nadal double fault, Berrettini jumped to a 4-0 lead and had two set points at 6-4 and 6-5. But Nadal pressured Berrettini into three consecutive backhand errors to set up his own set point at 7-6, whereupon Berrettini hit a forehand long.

The small cracks in Berrettini’s efficiency led to Nadal saving three break points in the first three games of the second set. When Berrittini, serving at 3-3 and 15-40, netted another backhand, Nadal had the service break to take control. Nadal never faced a break point on his serve.

The pendulum continued to swing, from Nadal to Berrettini and back again. But Nadal armed himself against the dangerous Berrittini, ranked in the Top 25 for the first time this year, with his usual working-man’s style, audial (loud grunts) as well as visual (moving corner to corner and, when necessary, from baseline to the net).

Berrettini was the fourth Italian man in any Slam semifinal in the open era, which dates to 1968, and the first in a U.S. semifinal since Corrado Barazzutti in 1977, when the tournament still was being played at Forest Hills and, at the time, was contested on Har-Tru.

Nadal, meanwhile, was playing his seventh consecutive major-tournament semifinal, the 33rd in his career and eighth at the U.S. Open.

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