Rafael Nadal moved one win away from a third US Open title and 16th Grand Slam crown Friday when he defeated weary Juan Martin del Potro 4-6, 6-0, 6-3, 6-2.
The 31-year-old Spaniard, the 2010 and 2013 champion in New York, will be playing in his 23rd Slam final and third this year, looking to add the US title to his record 10th French Open.
In Sunday’s final, the world number one will face 32nd-ranked Kevin Anderson, the first South African in the championship match in 52 years.
Anderson reached his maiden final at the majors by beating 12th-seeded Pablo Carreno Busta of Spain 4-6, 7-5, 6-3, 6-4.
For 2009 champion Del Potro, Friday’s match was one too many as the physical and emotional toll of seeing off Roger Federer in four sets in the previous round left him spent.
“I have had an amazing season after some tough moments with injuries in recent years,” said Nadal, who started 2017 by finishing runner-up to Federer in Australia.
“It’s a very emotional year for me. I am in the final again and get the chance to fight for another title which is very important.”
Nadal said the key to Friday’s win was a change of tactics after the first set.
“I played too much to his backhand and I felt he was waiting for me there,” said Nadal after his 15th successive Grand Slam semi-final win.
“I changed it and it worked very well. I made him move more and make it all more unpredictable.”
Nadal finished with 45 winners and 20 unforced errors to Del Potro’s 23 and 40.
Despite a 4-0 winning record over Anderson, Nadal said he will not underestimate his opponent on Sunday.
— Rafa Nadal (@RafaelNadal) September 9, 2017
“He is a very dangerous player with a big serve and plays very well on this surface. I have known him since we were 12.
“He’s had many injuries but the way he has come back is a great example to the kids.”
Del Potro, who saved two match points against Dominic Thiem in a last-16 tie from which he almost retired with illness, gained the only break of the first set in the fifth game off a fortunate net cord.
However, few would begrudge Del Potro a little luck after he was pushed to the brink of retirement by four wrist surgeries that saw his ranking slip as low as 1,045 and forced him to miss 10 Grand Slam tournaments.
Nadal hit back with venom, gathering three breaks to take the second set in just 26 minutes as the Argentine suffered a power cut of staggering proportions.
The Spaniard, watched by Tiger Woods in his player’s box, then raced into a 3-0 lead in the third before Del Potro stopped the rot, having lost nine games in succession.
The Argentine saved two set points in the eighth game but Nadal soon wrapped it up at the next time of asking, pushing his opponent into desperate defense before the delivering the killer blow into an open court.
Nadal, beaten by Del Potro at the same stage in 2009, tightened the noose with two breaks for 4-1 and easy hold for 5-1.
It was all over in the eighth game when Nadal buried unleashed a backhand winner.
“I’m angry to lose a chance like this, but maybe tomorrow I will be calm and see how big the tournament was for me,” said Del Potro.
Anderson, 31, will attempt to become his country’s first Slam champion since Johan Kriek at the 1981 Australian Open.
Cliff Drysdale was the last South African man in the US final in 1965 but he was defeated by Manuel Santana.
“It has been a long road. This means the world to me,” said Anderson, whose career was at a crossroads in January when hip problems forced him out of the Australian Open and his ranking slumped to 80.
“This is why we work so hard. I was pretty nervous with it being the first time on the sport’s most famous stage.”
Carreno Busta, also playing in his first semi-final at the Slams, had not dropped a set at the tournament, helped by playing four qualifiers, and he was a set to the good on Friday, breaking in the seventh game.
The Spaniard had pocketed the opener hitting just two winners and only one unforced error.
But 6ft 8in (2.03m) Anderson eventually imposed himself much to the approval of watching Hollywood star Robert Redford and Microsoft founder Bill Gates
Anderson finished the tie with a power-packed 22 aces and 58 winners.
Americans Sloane Stephens and Madison Keys will contest Saturday’s US Open women’s final in New York.
Here, AFP Sport looks at five key facts surrounding what promises to be an epic clash at Arthur Ashe Stadium.
Who do you think will triumph?
First-time Grand Slam finalists Stephens and Keys are the first Americans to meet in a US Open final since Serena Williams defeated older sister Venus Williams in the 2002 final. But it has only been since January’s Australian Open that two Americans have met in a Slam final, with a pregnant Serena carrying the day again over Venus Williams.
No matter which American captures the title on Saturday, it will be the fifth time in the past nine Grand Slam events that a first-time Slam champion is crowned. The run of new major winners began on the New York hardcourts and includes Italy’s Flavia Pennetta at the 2015 US Open, Germany’s Angelique Kerber at the 2016 Australian Open, Spain’s Garbine Muguruza at the 2016 French Open and Latvia’s Jelena Ostapenko at this year’s French Open. The last American to become a first-time Slam winner was Jennifer Capriati at the 2001 Australian Open.
Every three years starting in 2005, there have been four different winners of the women’s titles in the year’s four Grand Slams and this year will keep that run going after Serena Williams won the Australian Open, Jelena Ostapenko won the French Open and Garbine Muguruza won Wimbledon. The 2005 lineup was Serena in Australia, Venus at Wimbledon, Justine Henin at Roland Garros and Kim Clijsters at the US Open. In 2008 it was Maria Sharapova at Melbourne, Ana Ivanovic in Paris, Venus in London and Serena in New York. In 2011 it was Clijsters in Australia, China’s Li Na at the French Open, Petra Kvitova at Wimbledon and Aussie Samantha Stosur at the US Open. In 2014 it was Li in Australia, Sharapova in Paris, Kvitova at Wimbledon and Serena in New York.
At 83rd in the world rankings, Sloane Stephens would be the fourth-lowest-ranked Grand Slam champion since computer rankings began in 1975. Evonne Goolagong was unranked when she won the 1977 Australian Open after giving birth to her first daughter seven months earlier. Kim Clijsters was unranked after coming out of retirement when she won the 2009 US Open. And Chris O’Neil was ranked 111th when she won the 1978 Australian Open. Stephens would also become just the fifth unseeded player to win a Grand Slam title in the Open Era (since 1967) after O’Neil, Clijsters, Serena Williams at the 2007 Australian Open and Jelena Ostapenko in June at the French Open.
Each of this year’s US Open finalists was recovering for a serious injury just three months ago. Keys underwent her second left wrist surgery in 10 months after a second-round exit at the French Open while Stephens spent 11 months recovering from a left foot injury before making her return at Wimbledon. Both showed signs of what was coming in US Open hardcourt tuneups, however, with Keys winning at Stanford and Stephens reaching the Toronto and Cincinnati semi-finals.
There has been no shortage of incredible comeback tales this season and it seems fitting that both US Open women’s finalists – Sloane Stephens and Madison Keys – each has their own surgery-to-triumph journey in 2017.
Stephens missed 11 months of action, from last year’s Olympics to this year’s Wimbledon, in which she had an operation done on her left foot.
The 24-year-old American slipped to 957 in the world and up until last month had not won a singles match since Wimbledon 2016.
Yet within six weeks, Stephens has racked up 19 wins against four losses and is guaranteed a return to at least No. 22 in the rankings when the new list is released on Monday.
Here’s a closer look at her stunning summer and how she made an unlikely run to the US Open final…
Stephens made the semis in Toronto and Cincinnati, and is in the US Open final, and she has done it all by taking down some massive scalps.
Her route to the title match in Flushing Meadows this fortnight saw her defeat:
Her other victims this summer include Petra Kvitova (lost to Stephens in Toronto and Cincinnati), Lucie Safarova, Angelique Kerber and Ekaterina Makarova.
Stephens has spent a total of 11 hours and 35 minutes on court in singles at this US Open and the average ranking of her opponents is 26.5.
Stephens has gotten herself out of tricky situations these past few weeks and she explains how staying positive has been crucial for her. She dropped the second set against Venus in the semi-finals on Thursday but hung on and had the final say in the end.
“Yeah, I guess because I’m just getting old (smiling), more calm and just kind of — it’s very situational. Tennis is very situational,” says Stephens. “I think once you realise that it’s not life or death out there, like, things — like, you can turn a tennis match around.
“When I am on the court, I realise if I just stay positive with myself, I can make a lot of things happen, and I can fight back from a lot of things.”
It’s no secret that speed and impeccable footwork are two of Stephens’ greatest strengths and it’s remarkable how she has managed to return from foot surgery and still maintain such great movement.
“I was on a walking boot like a month before I played Wimbledon,” she admits.
“I knew I was going to have to play my way into shape, and I think I’ve done that pretty well. I got a lot of matches in. I’ve run a lot. I’ve played a couple of three-setters. So, yeah, I think my movement is probably what’s kind of kept me in some of these matches, shockingly.”
As a 19-year-old, Stephens had her early breakthrough at the 2013 Australian Open, where she beat Serena Williams en route to the semi-finals. She made the fourth round or better at all four majors that season. It has taken her four years to get back to the semis at a Slam.
On what she learnt about herself during that four-year journey, Stephens says: “That I’m a real fighter, that I have a lot of grit. Surprising. Like, to myself, I don’t give up. Like, I’m not just going to give it to someone. I’m not just going to let them take it from me. I’m going to make sure I give everything that I have, and I leave everything on the court at all times, no matter what.”
Sixty years ago, Althea Gibson became the first African-American player to win a Grand Slam by claiming both Wimbledon and the US Open in 1957. Stephens was one of three African-American women featuring in this fortnight’s semi-finals (along with Keys and Venus).
“I don’t think there is any other word to describe it than “amazing” for me and Maddie. Obviously, Venus, we are following in her footsteps. She’s been here. She’s represented the game so well as an African-American woman. Maddie and I are here to join her and represent just as well as Venus has in the past and honoured to be here,” said Stephens in New York on Thursday.