To say Rafael Nadal is in dominant form right now would be both stating the obvious, and a big understatement. The Spaniard, who only a few years ago was dealing with a new set of injuries, has taken his clay-court magic from the 2019 season and transferred it to the speedier surfaces. On Friday, fresh on the heels of defeating a younger player, Nadal dispatched 24th seed Matteo Berrettini in straight sets — 7-6, 6-3, 6-1. But if the scoreline makes it seem like it was a one-sided fight, it certainly did not start that way.
Part of the new, young breed of talent coming out of the ATP, Berrettini, who is 23 and currently ranked 24 on the Tour, has had nothing short of a dream run at the US Open, only two years after making his debut in the main draw at a Tour-level event. The Italian has won two titles on Tour this season — on the clay surface at the Hungarian Open and then on grass in Stuttgart.
On Friday, Berrettini played drop shots early on, reminiscent Fabio Fognini, the other Italian player who beat Nadal on clay this year in Monte Carlo and who was probably laughing to himself somewhere during Friday’s semi-final.
Drop shots flummox Nadal on occasion, and Berrettini put them to good use in the encounter. The Italian’s serve was also on point, and for the duration of the first set at least, he was able to produce aces with regularity. Five games in, he had already three aces to Nadal’s one, and with the help of a few drop shots here and there, took an excellent hold of serve.
If the younger player was intimidated at all by Nadal early on, he certainly didn’t show it, going for broke with every shot. He was simultaneously aggressive and defensive despite the enormity of the situation, considering it was his first Grand Slam semi-final after all, that too against an opponent who has dominated players ranked much higher than himself.
Enough and more has been said and known about the mental toughness of Rafa Nadal, but a lot must also be said of Matteo Berrettini, who held his own — serve, or otherwise — where he needed it most. Although Nadal managed to generate six break points during the first set, he was not able to convert any of them. With more drop shots to confuse his Spanish world No 2 rival, the Italian took the first set to tiebreak — and held his own even then. Nadal may have closed out the first set, but that was after a 23-shot rally, the end of which saw a raucous US Open crowd applaud both players — and cheer on Berrettini.
Against anyone and everyone else, Berrettini’s phenomenal backhand would well have won him the match. But Rafael Nadal is a different beast, and Rafael Nadal in form like this is unbeatable even on a bad day.
Friday for Rafa Nadal was not a bad day. Anything but.
If coming to the net had helped Nadal in Set 1, it certainly went up a notch in the second. The Spaniard won nearly 90 percent of his net points, but a lot has to be said about the fearlessness of Berrettini. He successfully defended nine break points until the second set — the first of them with a pair of impeccably-timed aces.
What perhaps let Berrettini down was not that he did not defend his own serves (we know he did), but not attacking Nadal’s more. But Berrettini admitted to fatigue even after the first set, and that fatigue is more than understandable; Nadal has been on court nearly six hours less than his Italian rival over the course of the US Open, and Berrettini has had a more significant battle to stay in this match. That, coupled with his relative inexperience compared to Nadal, saw him squander set point in the first, and tire quickly in the second — he was quickly down a break, and even though Nadal’s serve was less than ideal in this match, he brought Berrettini to the net, himself went back and forth through to the baseline, and followed through on almost every shot.
Berrettini, too, came into this semi-final on the back of a five-set battle against relative veteran Gael Monfils, while Nadal came off a relatively stern, albeit straight sets victory over Argentine Diego Schwartzmann. That, coupled with Nadal having played one fewer match than Berettini — courtesy a Borna Coric retirement — too played some part in Friday’s result.
That, coupled with Berrettini’s obvious exhaustion, saw the Italian’s game — and indeed, his shots — slow down, and his unforced error count mounted in the second set, in which he was unable to recover from Nadal’s early break of serve. He ended the second set down 4-6, and having committed 13 unforced errors to Nadal’s 7.
Given how tired Berrettini looked early on in the semi-final, the third set was perhaps lost a foregone conclusion with Nadal taking it 6-1, in cruise control from the very beginning of that set. But then again, it has been a bumper year for the Man-Who-Would-Be-No-1-again. He has been in sublime form early on, winning his twelfth French Open title in decisive fashion following the title in Italy, making the semi-finals at Wimbledon, and coming into the US Open on the back of a title win in Canada.
Having adapted his game to his changing body and to accommodate injuries, Nadal has looked more menacing than ever. In a time when most expected Djokovic to dominate, it is the Serbian who has been struck by injuries, while Nadal has managed them impeccably. While enough has been written and more about Nadal’s mental ability, on Friday, that ability and his relative experience saw him through when it mattered most, even if he did squander a couple of early break opportunities.
But although he was ousted from Friday's match, Berrettini still became the first Italian man in over 40 years to make the semi-finals at the US Open; the last player to do so was the former world No 7 Corrado Barazzutti, who is incidentally the non-playing captain of the Italian Davis Cup team. The match may be a loss for the 23-year-old, but the tournament is far from it. He brought his best game to court consistently, held his own despite a tiring body, and showed some frustration only towards the end of the second set.
The odds were firmly on Nadal to win the semi-final, as they likely are on him to win the title here at Flushing Meadows. If he wins, the title will be Nadal’s fourth, one fewer than the record held by Roger Federer and Jimmy Connors.
Now, the stage is set for a Nadal-Medvedev final, much like on the women’s side where the Rogers Cup finals have repeated themselves. It is almost storybook — the beloved fan favourite vs the “bad Boy” of the US Open. But if the results are anything to go by here, Daniil Medvedev may as well pack up.
Considering the stage, however, and how Medvedev is able to bring his A-Game as he did against Grigor Dimitrov, we may be in for a battle — one, that perhaps, is still Nadal’s to lose.
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Updated Date: Sep 07, 2019 13:40:03 IST