US Open 2017: Rafael Nadal solves Juan Martin del Potro puzzle to reach third Grand Slam final of year
What makes Nadal especially brutal as an opponent is that Nadal has the unique ability to make his opponents’ strengths seem like weaknesses
After Juan Martin del Potro drilled a forehand winner to take the first set of his semi-final against Rafael Nadal 6-4, there was a feeling that the Argentine might be able to continue his Cinderella run to the US Open final.
That feeling didn’t last long.
In fact, Nadal went on a tear, winning 9 straight games before del Potro could stop the bleeding down 0-3 in the fourth set, having lost the third 6-0 in 19 minutes. Del Potro could never get another foothold in the match, losing the third set 6-3, and giving up a break early in the fourth set, which Nadal closed out easily at 6-2.
With this win, Nadal is only one win away from winning a second Slam, and thereby putting together one of the best seasons of his career. Many had written him off as a top contender, after he failed to advance past the quarter-finals of a Slam from Wimbledon 2014 till the 2016 US Open. Losses to much lower-ranked players started to pile up, and Nadal himself seemed to play much smaller than he had in the past — shots landing short of their marks, and his confidence openly faltering. At this stage in his career, Nadal’s season has been nothing short of extraordinary.
When he reached the Australian Open final in January 2017, many assumed he would once again best his old rival, Roger Federer. And, when Nadal took a 3-1 lead in the fifth set, no one would have predicted that he would be the one to fold, but Federer managed to win the next five games, and the title. Yet, Nadal didn’t allow this stumble to derail his progress. Instead, he swept the entire clay season and added his tenth French Open to his tally.
New York has not been an easy place for Nadal over the years — he won his first US Open title in 2010, more than five years after he began his mastery of the clay courts at Roland Garros. But this year, he enjoyed a relatively favorable draw — 28th ranked del Potro will be the highest ranked player that Nadal will face this year in New York, as his opponent in the final, Kevin Anderson, is ranked 32nd. And, more important than the quality of his opposition, has been the quality of Nadal himself.
At his best, Rafael Nadal has always been one of tennis’ great problem solvers. His rise to number one the first time was due to his dogged pursuit, not only of then-dominant Roger Federer, but of his own excellence on surfaces outside of clay. After dominating clay for years, Nadal slowly became a masterful grass court player, first reaching a Wimbledon final in 2006, which he lost to Federer in four sets. The next year, he came back to the final and pushed Federer to five sets before losing, and in 2008, he defeated Federer in a five-set thriller that has become known as the greatest match of all time.
Over the past two weeks, Nadal’s problem solving skills have been just as impressive. Indeed, in the first three rounds, Nadal found himself down in the first set to players with whose games he was not familiar. And, in each match, it took time for Nadal to figure out how to break open his opponents’ games. In the first round, against 85th ranked Dusan Lajovic, Nadal could not break the 27-year-old Serbian’s serve for most of the first set. But, once he figured it out, Nadal raced away with the match. The same happened in his four set wins over Taro Daniel and Leonardo Mayer in the next two rounds. And, then Nadal really began to cruise with dominant three-set wins over Alexander Dolgopolov and Andrey Rublev in the fourth round and quarter-finals.
Yet, on Friday night against del Potro, Nadal found himself again with a problem to figure out. While it is true that del Potro’s backhand, post-surgeries, is no longer the weapon it was when he won his US Open title in 2009, it remains a consistent shot that is not easy to break down. During the first set, Nadal began by hammering at del Potro’s backhand, waiting for it to falter. In doing so, Nadal’s patterns became too predictable for the powerful del Potro, and the Argentine was able to sneak out a break and the first set.
Instead of becoming frustrated at losing the first set, Nadal immediately realized that he had to change his tactics.
“After the first set I changed my tactic and strategy change a little bit. And that made the difference, no? I was not feeling the ball in the first set, but I was wrong in the way that I was trying to play, no? During the game, I started to understand a little bit better what I needed to do to try to be a little bit more unpredictable, because he was waiting for me in his backhand side.”
With that change, Nadal simply ran through del Potro, as if the first set had never happened.
What makes Nadal especially brutal as an opponent is that Nadal has the unique ability to make his opponents’ strengths seem like weaknesses. So, while del Potro had been able to run through many of his opponents with his thunderous forehand, Nadal started to pick up those shots and get them back to del Potro, often drawing errors. Then, seeing that del Potro’s energy was flagging, Nadal used his underrated touch to play drop shot after drop shot, making the tall Argentine’s usually good movement seem a step slow. And, when del Potro got into a groove with crosscourt shots, Nadal changed his patterns, aiming down the line, hitting winners at will, as del Potro could only watch the shots go by. By the end of the match, not only had del Potro lost, but he was left with some doubts about whether he would ever be able to overcome Nadal, as he noted in his post-match press conference:
“I don't know if, in the future, I can beat him again, but is just matter of time if I can get my old backhand one day or not, but I will try to change the games if I have the chance to play against him again.”
As for Nadal, he’s already focused on Sunday’s final.
“I will now look forward to the last match against a very tough opponent, and I need to be ready for it. It is probably the most important match for me that remain of this year, so I gonna try to give my best.”
Kevin Anderson has his work cut out for him.
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