Nadal beats Verdasco to reach U.S. Open semifinals
NEW YORK – After one early miss, Rafael Nadal slapped himself on the right thigh. After another, he put his hands on his hips and stared at the spot where his shot went awry.
It did not take long for Nadal to put a slightly slow start behind him and move one step closer to the only Grand Slam title he hasn’t won.
The top-seeded Nadal figured out how to handle the wind that’s plagued the tournament, got his serve in gear after being broken for the only time in five matches, and beat No. 8 Fernando Verdasco 7-5, 6-3, 6-4 Thursday night in the first all-Spanish quarterfinal in U.S. Open history.
Nadal’s streak of 62 consecutive holds of serve ended in Thursday’s third game, when he put a forehand in the net, allowing Verdasco to break him at love to go ahead 2-1. Nadal wouldn’t face another break point the rest of the match, though, and won the last 13 points he served in the second set.
In the very early going, Verdasco played the brand of point-extending, opponent-dispiriting defense that Nadal is so well-known for. But Nadal broke back to get to 4-all, thanks to Verdasco’s two double-faults in a row, and suddenly was seeming more and more comfortable.
Nadal broke Verdasco for a second time in the last game of the opening set thanks to a volley winner at the end of a 20-stroke exchange. By match’s end, Nadal was pulling out all the tricks, even hitting one half-volley while spinning around, putting the racket on the ball with his back to the net – sort of like a no-look pass in basketball.
And now Nadal is headed to a third consecutive semifinal at Flushing Meadows. Nadal never has reached a final in New York, losing in the semifinals to Andy Murray in 2008, and to eventual champion Juan Martin del Potro in 2009.
“Right now, for me, it’s a very, very nice feeling to be in (the) semifinals for the third time in a row for one of the most important tournaments in the world,” Nadal said. “For me, probably right now, the most important.”
On Saturday, Nadal – trying to complete a career Grand Slam at age 24 by earning a U.S. Open trophy to put alongside the eight total he owns from the French Open, Wimbledon and Australian Open – will face 12th-seeded Mikhail Youzhny of Russia for a spot in the final.
No. 2 Roger Federer will face No. 3 Novak Djokovic in Saturday’s other semifinal; they won their quarterfinals Wednesday. Federer owns a record 16 Grand Slam titles, including five at the U.S. Open, and has faced Nadal in finals at the other three major tournaments.
Nadal has won his last 19 Grand Slam matches, including titles in 2010 at the French Open and Wimbledon.
Youzhny’s only previous trip to the semifinals at any Grand Slam tournament came at the 2006 U.S. Open, and he made it there by upsetting Nadal in the quarterfinals.
“It’s another time, and I’m, like, another player,” Youzhny said. “I cannot say I am (a) better player now, but it’s another time and other opponent, so everything can happen.”
He hit fewer aces and fewer winners, needed treatment on his right foot in the fifth set – and still managed to come back and beat No. 25 Stanislas Wawrinka of Switzerland 3-6, 7-6 (7), 3-6, 6-3, 6-3 in four hours earlier Thursday.
“Maybe I was just a bit luckier than him,” Youzhny said.
As was the case for many matches in recent days, the wind was swirling inside Arthur Ashe Stadium. During Nadal’s 11th victory in 11 career matchups against Davis Cup teammate Verdasco, it regularly topped 15 mph, with gusts reaching 25 mph, and the temperature – consistently in the 90s in Week 1 – dipped to 65 degrees.
“Very difficult to play. Probably one of the more difficult days,” Nadal said.
Neither player seemed pleased by the conditions, and Verdasco looked up at his guest box in the second game after hitting one of his six double-faults. In the next game, however, he played some terrific sliding, stretching defense during a 20-stroke exchange he capped with a backhand passing winner to earn a break point.
He converted that, but never got another chance to really rattle Nadal, who has won all 15 sets he’s played at this U.S. Open and won 76 of 77 games he’s served.
The last time Nadal and Verdasco met at a Grand Slam tournament, in the 2009 Australian Open semifinals, they set a tournament record by playing for 5 hours, 14 minutes. Thursday’s match lasted less than 2 1/2 hours, in part because Nadal played so cleanly, making only 16 unforced errors; Verdasco made 41.
The outcome basically was settled in the sixth game of the second set, when Nadal broke to lead 4-2 with a delicate-as-can-be drop volley that Verdasco barely reached and couldn’t get in play. Nadal jumped and punched the air and had to know there was no longer any chance of the sort of upset Youzhny pulled off four years ago.
Youzhny was unseeded at the 2006 U.S. Open, but he knocked off four seeded players, including Nadal in the quarterfinals, before losing to Andy Roddick in the semifinals. Wawrinka was only the second seeded player Youzhny has faced in the tournament this year; he beat No. 18 John Isner of the United States in the third round.
Nothing seemed to rattle Youzhny on Thursday. He dealt with a deficit, a problem with his right foot, and the wind that made it tough to control strokes – Wawrinka made 71 unforced errors, Youzhny 57. That helped Youzhny overcome Wawrinka’s advantages in aces (13-2) and winners (48-35). Both men won 154 points.
Youzhny also never appeared to get rattled by all the noise going on near the court as Wawrinka was supported exuberantly by his entourage. On pretty much every significant point won by Wawrinka, the black-clad, sunglasses-wearing bunch in his guest box would stand up, applaud, yell and trade fist bumps. The celebrations were led from the front row by Wawrinka’s coach, Peter Lundgren – who used to work with Federer and helped him win his first Wimbledon championship.
Now everyone will be thinking past the semifinals in New York, and ahead to Sunday’s final, and the tantalizing prospect of No. 1 Nadal vs. No. 2 Federer, with a championship on the line.
First, of course, Federer must beat Djokovic, and Nadal must beat Youzhny.
Asked if he’ll try to be a spoiler, Youzhny replied: “Yeah, I’m ready to be bad person. I love to be bad person in this case.”