Disparate emotions melded for a moment as Rafael Nadal embraced Juan Martin del Potro.
Parting was painful for the defending champion.
Return is rewarding for the former champion.
Nine years after Juan Martin del Potro ruled Flushing Meadows, he returned to the US Open final—though not in the way he wanted.
A grimacing and gimpy Nadal retired with a right knee issue with del Potro holding a 7-6 (3), 6-2 lead in today’s US Open semifinal.
“I waited as much as I can,” said Nadal, who twice took medical time-outs to have his right knee taped. “You could imagine very difficult for me to say good-bye before the match finish. But at some point you have to take a decision.
“It was so difficult for me to keep playing at the same time that way, having too much pain. That was not a tennis match at the end, no? It was just one player playing, the other one staying on the other side of the court. I hate to retired, but stay one more set out there playing like this will be too much for me.”
It’s been a long journey back to a major final for the 29-year-old Argentine, who made history as the first man to knock off Nadal and Roger Federer in succession at a Grand Slam in capturing the 2009 US Open.
Resilience was rewarded today as del Potro was cheered on by about 10 of his buddies who made the trip from his hometown of Tandil to support his US Open quest.
“It means a lot to me,” del Potro said. “I didn’t expect to get in another Grand Slam final. I had my biggest memories on the tennis court playing on on this court in 2009 when I beat Rafa and then Roger. But I was a kid and now I am much older and I will fight one more day.”
It is del Potro’s 10th career victory over a world No. 1—the most among all men who have never held the top spot themselves—and his first Grand Slam win over Nadal since he swept the Spaniard, 6-2, 6-2, 6-2, in the 2009 US Open semifinals.
The third-seeded Argentinian will face either Wimbledon winner Novak Djokovic or Kei Nishikori in Sunday’s final. Djokovic is 14-4 lifetime vs. del Potro, while the Indian Wells champion has won six of eight meetings with 2014 finalist Nishikori.
“Of course not the best way to win the match,” del Potro told ESPN’s Tom Rinaldi afterward. “Rafa is the biggest fighter in this sport so I don’t like to see him suffering on court.
“So I’m sad for him, but so happy for him to do his best. Anyways, I think the key of the match was the first set. We both played good tennis. It was a really tough one and I did well in the tie break and then I started to play much better.”
Drained by his punishing four hour, 49-minute triumph over Dominic Thiem that ended at 2:03 a.m., a depleted Nadal fought hard in the first set, but was limping, lacked explosiveness and looked disconsolate by the early stages of the second set.
Armed with a 24-4 record in Grand Slam semifinals, Nadal was aiming to defend a major outside of Paris for the first time in his career, but he was a wounded warrior by the end.
The 17-time Grand Slam champion said he felt knee pain flair at 2-all in the opening set.
“As everybody knows, I had an issue, it was in the second or third match,” said Nadal, whose 12 match US Open winning streak was snapped. “Then I think was little bit better.
“But, yeah, I think was 2-All in the first, 15-Love, something like this in the first set, that I felt. I said too my box immediately that I felt something on the knee. After that, I was just trying to see if in some moment the thing can improve during the match. But no, was not the day.”
This 17th clash between former US Open champions was their fourth meeting in the las five majors pitting del Potro’s disruptive power against Nadal’s ball control skills.
Flicking a forehand down the line, Nadal sealed a love hold for 4-3 then called the trainer, who wrapped tape around his right knee during the changeover.
Rapping a forehand down the line, del Potro exploited a sloppy Nadal in the ninth game breaking for 5-4.
An infuriated Nadal slammed his water bottle on the changeover and removed the wrapping from his knee trying to manage the pain and find a comfort level to compete.
Serving for the set, del Potro wasted a pair of set points scattering a backhand and netting a forehand casting a gloomy gaze at the blue court.
Tossed a life-line, Nadal scraped out the break soaring through eight straight points confirming the break at love.
Shrugging off a deflating lapse, del Potro punished a diagonal forehand for a 5-2 tie break lead. When Nadal netted a backhand, del Potro snatched a physical 68-minute set.
The 2009 champion boasted a 37-1 record when winning the opening set this season and set about to stretch his lead against the hobbled champion.
Denying a couple of break points in the second game of the second set, Nadal had another tape job and knee massage during a medical timeout after the third game.
While the Spaniard looked unsettled, del Potro was finding his rhythm and range on the backhand.
Dashing to his left del Potro drilled a running backhand pass down the line for triple break point. On his fifth break point of the set, del Potro broke for 3-1 as Nadal shoveled a forehand long.
Annoyed by an incorrect call mid-point, Nadal walked toward chair umpire James Keothavong and said “it’s okay, I’m going to retire anyway.”
Still, he played on dodging two break points to hold for 2-4.
Rarely do you see a major match where Nadal doesn’t sprint for every ball, but by the second set there was a strained futility to his gait and a gloomy look of inevitability etched on his face.
When del Potro closed the 50-minute second set, Nadal tossed his headband aside, flipped his wristbands off, stuck his Babolat sticks in his racquet bag then walked around net to embrace del Potro.
Parting was painful. A grim Nadal said afterward del Potro deserves to be back playing for major silverware after enduring four wrist surgeries that threatened his career.
“He’s a player that went through lot of issues during his career, like me too,” Nadal said. “I know how tough is this thing. I know how much frustration can be when you can’t do the thing that you want to do. He knows very well.
“Happy to him that he’s able to be back in his top level. For him it will be huge if he’s able to win again a Grand Slam.”
Nine years after del Potro vowed to New York fans “I will fight for you” after conquering Nadal in the semifinals, he relishes the chance to continue this battle.
“I cannot believe that I will have a chance to play another Grand Slam finals in here, which is my favorite tournament,” del Potro said. “So it would be special to me. Would be a big challenge, as well, because I’ve been fighting with many, many problems to get in this moment.
“I’m here now. It will be a difficult match, of course. But anyway, I think I’ve been doing a good tournament. And in the finals, anything can happen. If I win, great. If not, I been playing a great tournament and I will be happy anyways.”