Column: Rafael Nadal rises to challenge to reach U.S. Open semifinals

Rafael Nadal celebrates his victorry over Diego Schwartzman during their U.S. Open quarterfinal match in New York on Wednesday.
(Don Emmert / AFP/Getty Images)

The Big Three of men’s tennis had dwindled to the Lone One before Rafael Nadal took to the court Wednesday night for his quarterfinal against spunky but undersized 5-foot-7 Diego Schwartzman.

Novak Djokovic had retired in the fourth round because of a shoulder injury, and a suddenly old-looking Roger Federer had departed in the quarterfinals because of tightness in his upper back and neck and the dynamic play of Grigor Dimitrov. That left Nadal, 33, to uphold the honor of the trio that has won each of the last 11 Grand Slam event singles titles and 15 of the last 17.

When Schwartzman charged back to pull even at 4-4 in the first set and gained two break points in the next game, and again when he won four straight games in the second set to bring it to 5-5, it wasn’t ridiculous to think the Big Three might become the Big Zero. Form prevailed, though Nadal’s serve was broken four times while he labored in humidity under the closed roof of Arthur Ashe Stadium to earn a 6-4, 7-5, 6-2 victory and reach the semifinals on Friday against Matteo Berrettini of Italy.


“I am so happy, super happy with the way I accepted the situation, accepted the challenge,” Nadal said in an on-court interview. “Here I am in the semifinals and that’s the most important thing.”

Nadal, who counts three U.S. Open titles among his 18 Grand Slam event singles titles, has never played Berrettini, a first-time Grand Slam event semifinalist. Berrettini, seeded No. 24, pushed past his nerves to take a 3-6, 6-3, 6-2, 3-6, 7-6 (5) decision from No. 13 Gael Monfils of France on Wednesday in lively atmosphere.

When it was over, Berrettini dropped to the court on his back and covered his face in disbelief. “It’s my first semis. I never won a match here in the U.S. Open, so it’s my second year in the main draw. I didn’t expect that,” he said. “I’m pretty excited for that. I was tired and I felt to just leave myself on the court.”

Bianca Andreescu defeated Elise Mertens 3-6, 6-2, 6-3 at Arthur Ashe Stadium to advance to the U.S. Open semifinals.

Monfils’ groundstrokes careened between the delicate brush strokes of a masterpiece and splotches dripped from a paint-by-numbers kit. He committed 17 double faults, two in the tiebreaker. But he also fought off four match points before succumbing to 23-year-old Berrettini, who became the youngest U.S. Open semifinalist since Djokovic was a semifinalist at that age in 2010.

“I really don’t know what are his limits, because he’s still going up, up, up,” said Berrettini’s coach Vincenzo Santopadre, “and so it’s difficult to say where he can arrive, what he can reach, because I think nobody knows because he’s so young and he’s continuing this growing.”

Berrettini appeared to be pulling away in the fifth set when he won three straight games and built a 5-2 lead, but Monfils held and then Berrettini double-faulted on his first match point and sent a forehand into the net to give Monfils the break and the game. Monfils held for 5-5 and Berrettini held for 6-5 before he squandered two match points with a series of unforced errors.

“It’s a sign for me, you know, for the first point of the breaker, when I say I want to be aggressive, I return a decent return with my forehand. He had a great answer straightaway, winner cross,” Monfils said. “And then I think I just disappear with my serve, you know. And then it’s tough. You’re battling, because honestly Matteo, I will know that he will push. He will push to finish it, because I felt that he was a bit tight, so he will go for his shot. He did well. He had a little bit luck. That’s also part of the game.”

Berrettini took a 6-4 lead in the tiebreaker on a nifty forehand volley that ended a 24-shot rally, and Monfils saved match point for the fourth time when he countered with an ace. Monfils sent a forehand long to end the instant classic after 3 hours 57 minutes. “I think when I was playing it was one of the best matches I ever saw. I was playing but I was watching also,” Berrettini said after he became the second Italian man to reach the semifinals here. The first was Corrado Barazzutti in 1977.

The other semifinal will features Dimitrov against Daniil Medvedev.

Berrettini’s earliest memory of Nadal is watching him on TV while Nadal beat Guillermo Coria to win a tournament in Berrettini’s hometown of Rome in 2005. “I think he’s the greatest fighter ever in this sport. It’s unbelievable what he’s doing,” Berrettini said. “I admire him, like the way he is on the court. Like, his attitude is something that I think it’s close to perfection.” Schwartzman also admires Nadal’s spirit and declared him the favorite Friday. “He’s like a lion in the middle of the jungle. I play him eight times and every big moment he play better than me,” Schwartzman said.

Nadal was complimentary toward Berrettini. “He is super confident. He is a player who is making big steps forward every week,” Nadal said. “It’s going to be a big challenge.” Not too big, though, for the only one of the Big Three left standing.