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U.S. Open: Healthy Rafael Nadal makes it to quarters with little resistance

Rafael Nadal with the backhand return against Hyeon

Rafael Nadal with the backhand return against Hyeon Chung during their third round match in the 2019 US Open Tennis Tournament on Saturday, Aug. 31, 2019. Credit: Joseph D. Sullivan

Rafael Nadal’s quest for a fourth U.S. Open title got over a hump at Arthur Ashe Stadium Monday night when he took out 2014 Open champion Marin Cilic.

The 6-3, 3-6, 6-1, 6-2 win puts him into the quarterfinals against Diego Schwartzman, who never has beaten him in seven previous meetings.    

Nadal took the first set comfortably, then Cilic took advantage of his first break point in the fourth game of the second set to square the match. The level of tennis was pretty high, if the electricity in the crowd was a dull hum.

It got amped up in the third set, especially when Nadal, racing for a lob with his back to the net, flicked the ball one-handed past Cilic for a winner in the fourth game. Nadal roared his emotions and his friend Tiger Woods jumped to his feet to gyrate in a private suite. Nadal broke Cilic’s serve in the fourth and again in the sixth to take the set. Two more breaks at the start of the fourth set and Cilic was done.

Nadal wasn’t done with spectacular shots, though, earning a point when he served out the set by wrapping a forehand around the net post on the ad-court side.

“It’s easy to describe and difficult to make,” he said of that point. “I follow the ball good, I run to the ball and I see at the last moment there is a small space to make that point.”  

Nadal won nine straight games from the third to the fourth set. “I started to return his second serve and that provided a different perspective for me,” he said.

Nadal reached the round of 16 with great ease, spending only 4 hours, 7 minutes on court in the first three matches, aided by a walkover against Thanasi Kokkinakis in the second round. Cilic had spent more than double that time in his three matches, including 3:19 against John Isner in the third round.

At age 33 and with enough miles on his body to earn several first-class airline tickets, Nadal, when healthy, still is lethal.  He won the French Open for a 12th time this season, his 18th grand slam title, and also won on clay at the Italian Open in Rome and on hardcourt at the Canadian Open in Montreal.

But he’s also been missing in action at several points this season. Because of a right knee injury, he conceded a walkover to Roger Federer in a semifinal at Indian Wells in March and pulled out of the Miami Open the following week. Early in the season he withdrew from Brisbane with a thigh strain and took off February for rest and recovery. He withdrew from the tournament in Cincinnati in August, citing fatigue, following his Montreal win.

He looks healthy now, though, and he's got Woods (who knows a little something about pain management) backing him up.

Three others advance: Pint-sized Schwartzman, a 5-7 Argentine, ousted No. 6 seed Alexander Zverev, 3-6, 6-2, 6-4, 6-3, to reach the quarterfinals for a second time (also 2017). Matteo Berrenttini, an unheralded Italian seeded 24th, made the quarters with a 6-1, 6-4, 7-6 (6) win over Andrey Rublev.  The continually entertaining Gael Monfils is through after a 6-1, 6-2, 6-2 win over Pablo Andujar.

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