NEW YORK—It seems that in every close match he plays, there are two Rafael Nadals who are at war with each other.
There’s the Rafa of 2005 to 2014, the game’s grittiest competitor, conqueror of Roger Federer in epic five-set Grand Slam finals, and an escape artist in the tradition of Bjorn Borg and Harry Houdini.
But alongside that Nadal, there’s the Nadal of 2015, 2016, and the 2017 Australian Open final. That version was basically the polar opposite of the one who had come before. That version couldn’t tame his nerves, and he found ways to make matches close, only to lose them in the end. That version of Rafa reached his peak—or low point—at the 2016 US Open, when, in a fifth-set tiebreaker, he snatched defeat from the jaws of victory one more time against Lucas Pouille.
Since then, though, the early Rafa—the gritty Rafa—has reasserted himself. He’s won three majors and risen back to No. 1. But it’s never easy; the nerves are still there, still something he must master each time he faces a strong opponent. In his semifinal against Novak Djokovic at Wimbledon, Nadal was the better player for most of the match, but he couldn’t find a way to win the point he needed—a common problem for the 2015-2016 Rafa—and ended up narrowly losing in five sets.
Karen Khachanov is hardly Novak Djokovic, but he qualifies as a strong opponent. He pushed Rafa through two hard sets in Toronto earlier this month (see above), and he pushed him even harder through four brutally contested sets, and four hours and 23 minutes, in Arthur Ashe Stadium today. The 6’5” Khachanov has the ingredients to trouble Rafa—height, power, a two-handed backhand—and he was in control for the better part of the first two sets, belting down 130-m.p.h. serves and throwing haymaker forehands.
Nadal got off to a subpar start, and he spent the first half of the afternoon retreating ever deeper into the court; just when it didn’t look like he could possibly find any more room back there, he managed to take another step back.
But while he wasn’t playing like the Rafa of old, he was competing like him. Nadal came back from a break down twice in the second set to win it 7-5, a result that inspired one of his more memorable backwards-dancing, fist-twirling celebrations.
Something similar seemed in store at the end of the third set, when Nadal pulled off a brilliant drop shot-pass combination to go up 6-3 in the tiebreaker. But just when 2008 Rafa looked to be triumphant, 2016 Rafa reappeared to lose the next three points. He didn’t have the upper hand for long, though. Nadal hung on to win the point of the match, in a 39-shot rally, to steal away with the breaker 9-7.
That same dynamic—nervous Rafa vs. nerveless Rafa—continued to play out in the fourth set. He broke early, held easily a few times, and seemed to have the match in hand when he served for it at 5-4. Then he was broken at love, and a few minutes later, he found himself facing a set point for Khachanov.
From there, though, Nadal the 17-time Grand Slam champion took over for good. Instead of getting tight in the tiebreaker, the way he had against Pouille two years ago, he raised his game to its highest, most confident level of the day to finally secure a 5-7, 7-5, 7-6 (7), 7-6 (3) victory, in the match of the tournament so far.
Khachanov walked out with his head high, to a clamorous roar from the Ashe crowd. He hit 22 aces and 66 winners, and he won with defense and athleticism, as well as brute power. The 22-year-old Russian has been on the verge of a signature Grand Slam win; he moved a couple of steps closer today.
“I escaped tough situations,” said Nadal, sounding a little like Houdini, when it was over.
It was a close call, but the good Rafa, the gritty Rafa, the real Rafa, had won out again.
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