NEW YORK — Early in this US Open, top-seeded Rafael Nadal refused the bait thrown to him by the media and admitted that, frankly, he would just as soon not meet No. 3 seed Roger Federer in the projected semifinal matchup that had everyone salivating.
“Sounds very good,” Nadal said of the potential clash with his great career rival for the first time at the US Open. “But the [truth is] I prefer to play against another player, an easier one if that’s possible.”
On Wednesday night in Arthur Ashe Stadium, Nadal was granted Part A of that wish when Juan Martin del Potro took his forehand wrecking ball to Federer, defeating the five-time US Open champion in four sets. Whether Delpo qualifies as the “easier” player in Part B of Nadal’s wish is the question of the moment.
Sure, Federer had beaten Nadal in all of their past four matches, three of them this year. But del Potro has a two-match winning streak going against Nadal, the latest coming last year in the Rio Olympic semifinals.
In 2009, del Potro upset Federer here in New York to claim his first (and thus far only) Grand Slam title. The sensational nature of that win sometimes obscures the fact that del Potro met and overpowered Nadal in the semifinals, giving up just two games in each set. He went on to become the first player to beat Federer and Nadal in the same Grand Slam event.
Del Potro, of course, stands at the same juncture now, though he’ll have to try to do the job in reverse order.
He recovered from the flu and the exertions of his enervating fourth-round comeback win to take out Federer two days later. It’s unlikely del Potro will fade against Nadal, unless he tires of cranking up and firing those massive serves and forehands.
Curiously, it was del Potro’s backhand that kept Federer at bay. That’s the 28-year-old Argentine’s weak side, partly because he has had to alter the way he hits from that wing.
“I hit my best backhand on the tournament tonight, which is a good signal for the future.” del Potro said late Wednesday night, citing a few key points he won with the shot.
Federer worked furiously to get at del Potro’s backhand all evening, as Delpo’s opponents invariably do, but to little avail.
Nadal is more equipped to get at the backhand wing. As del Potro said, “He’s a lefty. So, he has a better chance to find my backhand.”
Del Potro admitted he’s not sure what his strategy for the match would be, but he promised this: “For sure I will try to make winners with my forehands and don’t run too much because my legs are tired.”
After Nadal won his quarterfinal earlier in the day, the stream of questions from reporters all flowed in one direction toward a semifinal against Federer. When someone finally asked what Nadal might do if he found himself facing del Potro, Rafa explained:
“I need to be very focused with my serve and play aggressive. If you let him play from good positions with his forehand, you are dead because he plays super-aggressive, hitting so hard. So probably he’s unstoppable from that position, no? I need to play long, I need to play against his backhand and then open [up] the court.”
Del Potro’s backhand will probably see some more serious work. How it holds up might be the key to the match. He must be fast approaching his physical and emotional limits as well. By contrast, Nadal is riding a six-set winning streak and seems healthy and strong as a prize bull.
However, Nadal once again has looked vulnerable during the summer hard-court season. It’s a period that has always packed a surprise or two for him, and not always pleasant ones. Finding del Potro across the net on such a big occasion might be even more surprising for Nadal than it was in 2009.
Del Potro has lost enormous chunks of career to surgeries and injury rehab since he won the Open, which makes his current success here seem fated — like cosmic payback for the suffering he has endured. He will almost surely win the battle for the crowd, at which he’s undefeated. People love him because of the trials he has endured and his gentle-giant demeanor.
But Delpo isn’t a mere feel-good story. It’s a play-good story, too. That could be the biggest problem for Nadal in this semifinal.