Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal have never met at the U.S. Open. They won’t this year, either.
The most highly anticipated match of this Open, Federer and Nadal in the semifinals, was rendered mute when Juan Martin del Potro took Federer’s place, beating him in the quarterfinals on Wednesday night.
The injury plagued but doggedly determined del Potro won 7-5, 3-6, 7-6 (8), 6-4 and will face Nadal on Friday with the unheralded pair of Kevin Anderson and Pablo Carreno Busta meeting in the other semifinal.
Earlier in the day Nadal held up his end of the deal by thrashing 19-year-old Russian Andrey Rublev, 6-1, 6-2, 6-2.
The Federer-del Potro match turned on the third set tiebreaker. Federer had four set points and failed to convert. Del Porto’s big serve and big forehand saved two of them. Then del Potro got a little lucky with a short ball return that reached Federer in an awkward position he couldn’t handle. On the fourth, del Potro’s big serve was returned meakly and he swatted the sitter away. On del Potro’s first set point, the 18th of the tiebreak, Federer volleyed long.
Federer and del Potro were dueling at the Open eight years and four del Potro wrist surgeries ago since del Potro—then only 20—ended Federer’s five-year reign as U.S. champion with a five-set title-match victory in 2009.
That remains the often-sidelined del Potro’s only Grand Slam championship, while Federer holds the men’s record of 19 major-tournament titles. But del Potro has remained an Open crowd favorite close to the Federer level, especially enjoying the support of fellow Argentines and others with South American roots.
Del Potro’s rollicking five-set fourth-round victory over No. 6 seed Dominic Thiem on Monday, after del Potro nearly surrendered to a virus-like illness and a two-sets-to-love deficit, offered the SRO crowd in the Grandstand the feel of a title match.
To which del Potro responded, “I’d like to have the trophy for this fight.”
He said it was the crowd that kept him going in his most dire moments and he had plenty of support in Ashe Stadium Wednesday night.
Federer arrived at the match with building momentum after having to survive a pair of five-setters in the tournament’s first two rounds. Against No. 31 Feliciano Lopez and No. 33 Phillip Kohlschreiber, Federer rolled through straight-set victories with the same dominance he showed throughout this year’s Wimbledon, when he never lost a set.
But his Grand Slam season is over now, with another Australian Open title as well. He skipped the French Open and the clay court season to prepare for his best surfaces, grass and hardcourt. He had skipped the U.S. Open and the remained of the season after Wimbledon last year to rest his surgically repaired knee.
Nadal declared himself “excited to be in the semifinals,” no matter the opposition. He muddled around for a couple of rounds before finding his form, but in 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.”