Tuesday’s first set between No. 1 Rafael Nadal and No. 9 Dominic Thiem was a stunner.
Nadal, the No. 1 seed and defending U.S. Open champion was completely gassed in a dominant 6-0 first-set sweep for Thiem. He looked done from the start, losing 16 of the first 21 points in a set that took only 24 minutes for Thiem to claim.
The he hit the on button. Nadal held serve to win his first game of the match to start the second set and dug deep in a grueling back-and-forth classic to advance to the semifinals, 0-6, 6-4, 7-5, 6-7, 7-6.
Nadal needs 4:49 to survive his longest ever U.S. Open match
It was a 4:49 marathon that wasn’t decided until Nadal secured a 7-5 tiebreak in the fifth set that left both players exhausted, but only one satisfied.
“A great battle,” Nadal told ESPN. “The conditions were tough, humid. For me it was a very tough start. I tried to stay in the match some way in the second set. And I did.”
It was the fourth win for Nadal in four Grand Slam matches against Thiem, the most recent coming in May’s French Open Final. Nadal moves to 8-3 all time against the Austrian to set up a semifinal match against No. 3 seed Juan Martín del Potro on Friday.
Nadal finds his game in second set
Each player held serve in the second set until Nadal earned his first break in the eighth game to take a 5-3 lead. By this time, both players were drenched in sweat playing on a muggy 85-degree New York night.
Thiem returned the favor, breaking Nadal again to cut the set to 5-4. But Nadal again broke Thiem to secure the set, letting out a roar in the process.
The Nadal who was gassed and wearing a cooling vest during breaks in the first set was no more. He was ready for battle.
The third set was another grind. This time, Thiem broke first in the seventh game to take a 4-3 lead. Thiem had the serve holding a 5-4 lead with a chance to take a 2-1 lead in the match. But Nadal was ready for the moment, breaking Thiem to tie the set at 5-5. Nadal then held serve to take a 6-5 lead and closed out the set on Thiem’s serve on his third set point.
Thiem battles back
In the fourth set, Thiem once again took control early, breaking Nadal to take a 2-1 lead. But Nadal again was game, breaking Thiem in the eighth game to tie the set, 4-4 on a challenged Thiem backhand that was just excruciatingly long.
Thiem pushed Nadal to break point in the ninth game. But Nadal, after letting the 25-second serve clock expire, rallied to win the point and hold for a 5-4 lead.
Critical mistake costs Nadal in fourth
Leading 6-5 with a chance to take match point, Nadal mishit what looked like an easy volley into the net. He was visibly upset as Thiem won the game to force a tiebreak.
Nadal was clearly rattled and lost the first three points of the tiebreak that Thiem won 7-4 to force a fourth set.
At this point, Thiem had to ask for a new pair of shoes and socks because his were waterlogged from sweating so much.
Both players still strong after four hours
When they came back for the final set, both players were still in top form. Thiem, energized after extending the match, held serve to start the set, while Nadal had brushed off the signs of discouragement from the end of the fourth.
Neither player blinked with each refusing to be broken. Both maintained serves in the 120s and showed little sign of fatigue playing through long rallies more than four hours into the match.
Thiem almost cracked serving at 5-5. Nadal looked poised to serve for the match holding a 40-0 lead in the game that included a double fault. But Thiem closed out the game after giving up the first three points, putting Nadal under the gun, serving to survive to a tiebreak.
Survive he did, forcing the match to a tiebreak. Because somebody had to win.
Nadal wins by slimmest of margins
The two traded points through the tiebreak with neither extending his lead beyond one until Nadal finally created the two-point margin necessary to win at 7-5 off of Thiem’s serve.
It was a brutal loss for Thiem and one Nadal will be hard-pressed to forget, a moment the two recognized when they shared an embrace after the match.
“I’m very, very sorry for Dominic, Nadal said. “He’s a close friend on tour. He’s a great guy, a great player. … He’s a fighter. He has a great attitude. … Tough person, sorry for him, but I’m sure he will have his chances in the future without a doubt.”
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