NEW YORK—After the first set of Friday night’s semifinal between Rafael Nadal and Juan Martin del Potro, ESPN’s Pam Shriver did a short sideline interview with Rafa’s uncle and coach, Toni Nadal, who is retiring after this season.
Del Potro had won the first set 6-4, and to that point he had the upper hand in the rallies. Toni wasted no time diagnosing what was wrong. “We have a problem,” he said. Rafa wasn’t hitting his forehand with enough oomph to control the rallies, even the ones that went crosscourt to Delpo’s weaker backhand. The Argentine had surprised the Nadals by hitting over that shot rather than slicing it. Either way, it wasn’t proving to be the vulnerability they thought it would be. Toni’s prescription? He thought Rafa needed to hit his forehand with more power and variability.
Uncle and nephew were on the same wavelength, it turned out. Nadal started the second set hitting with more depth and height. After that, he began opening up the court and going down the line with his forehand. From there, the winners began to flow and the match turned around completely. Instead of trying to grind Delpo down, Nadal set himself free to use his full shot-making repertoire. He won points with down-the-line forehands, great gets, backhand passes and well-timed serve-and-volley forays.
What looked like a standard leveling of the match at one-set all was, in reality, the end of Del Potro. He couldn’t stem the Nadal tide in the second set, and by the time he had lost it 6-0 and gone down an early break in the third, he looked gassed. He was a step slow moving along the baseline, his velocity dropped on his serve and his forehands lost their fearsome power—by the end, most of them were ending up in the net. Delpo finished with 40 unforced errors against just 23 winners, was broken six times and never threatened Nadal’s serve after the first set.
As Delpo’s energy level dipped, Nadal’s rose. He took second-serve returns on the rise and forced his 6’6” opponent to defend both corners. He even played more quickly than normal to take advantage of Del Potro’s sluggishness. The winners came in bunches in the second and third sets, and his “banana” forehand hooked with laser precision into the corners. Nadal finished his 4-6, 6-0, 6-3, 6-2 win with 45 winners; in the stat that told the story of the match, 25 of those winners came from his forehand side, compared to just 11 for Del Potro.
“I changed a couple things,” Nadal said about his second-set gear shift. “I was playing too much to his backhand … I needed to move him more and be more unpredictable.”
Maybe the best sign for Rafa was how annoyed he was to lose the first set. Rather than acting as if he were doomed, he acted as if he should be winning this match. This was his standard reaction during his prime, but over the course of this hard-court season he had seemed more fatalistic. In his losses to Denis Shapovalov in Montreal and Nick Kyrgios in Cincinnati, Nadal had played poorly and appeared to have little confidence that he could play better, or that he should be winning these types of matches on this surface. But all of the second-guessing was gone by the start of the third set against Del Potro, and it never returned. Afterward, Rafa said that when he beat Leonardo Mayer in the third round, he believed it could be a “turning point” for him in this tournament. Now, in retrospect, he thinks he was right.
While New York tennis fans missed a chance to watch Nadal play Roger Federer, they might witness another historic Fedal moment on Sunday. A Rafa win over Kevin Anderson in the final would complete a clean sweep of the majors in 2017 for the old rivals, leaving them with two apiece. It would be an appropriate capper for this season of the aged, and an appropriate Slam finale for the lifelong partnership between Rafa and his uncle, Toni. We’ll see if they can find the same wavelength one more time.