Rafa restores order to the US Open

 - Alix Ramsay

Rafael Nadal defeats Diego Schwartzman in straight sets and advances to the semis in New York.

Hear Rafa Nadal roar during his quarterfinal at the 2019 US Open©Corinne Dubreuil/FFT

Enough with the upsets, already. To lose two great champions in the space of three days was enough of a blow for the US Open; the thought that they could lose three in four days seemed unthinkable. And yet, with the sort of results that have been coming out of Flushing Meadows of late, who knew what was about to happen.

We need not have worried. With the dust barely settled after the departures of Novak Djokovic and Roger Federer, into the Arthur Ashe Stadium strode Rafa Nadal. Now the nailed on favourite to lift the trophy on Sunday night, he restored calm and order to proceedings by beating Diego Schwartzman 6-4, 7-5, 6-2 in a little under three hours.

Rafel Nadal and Diego Schwartzman at the net during 2019 US Open©Corinne Dubreuil/FFT

Few secrets between them

It was not easy – Grand Slam quarter-finals are not supposed to be easy – and Schwartzman played the sort of dogged, counter-punching, tenacious game that had got him this far in the past 10 days. But it was not enough. Not against the 18-time Grand Slam champion who is homing in on his fourth title in New York.

The two men are friends off the court and regular practice partners on it – there are few secrets between them when it comes to playing the game. Sure enough, the diminutive Argentine pushed and pushed. He watched Nadal move ahead with a double break in each of the first two sets and then he reeled his old friend back in again, breaking back, making Nadal work for every point and every advantage.

“It was three sets but it was a big challenge,” Nadal said. “Especially after the first two sets, having 4-0 and then 5-1 in the second, and see myself in the situation where I lost both breaks in a row, have been a tough situation but I know how good he is. When he is confident, he is very difficult to stop and, of course, I had some mistakes – two breaks in a row.

“But I’m so happy, super happy, the way that I accepted the situation, I accepted the challenge and I just keep going point by point and here I am in semi-finals. That’s super important for me. That means everything.”

Rafael Nadal's back at the 2019 US Open©Corinne Dubreuil/FFT

The last of the Big Three

On hot, humid night, the air trapped inside the stadium by the new roof structure barely moved and was as thick as treacle. The sweat ran off both players in rivers as they duelled from the baseline but once the second set was over, there was only ever going to be one winner. Schwartzman tried by Nadal stood firm. 

The difference between them was simple: when Nadal’s back was to the wall, he fought harder, as hard as a multiple Grand Slam champion can fight. When Schwartzman’s back was to the wall, he felt the pressure all the more and made the rare but costly mistake.

It is the ultimate irony that Roger Federer and Novak Djokovic who have, for the most part, avoided serious injury throughout their careers, had been undone by a sore shoulder (Djokovic) and a bad back (Federer) while Nadal, who has struggled with injury time and again in New York, is the last of the Big Three still standing. And he is standing without pain (other than a little cramp in both forearms as he sweated buckets in the stifling humidity).


Rafael Nadal getting on court treatment during his quarterfinal at the 2019 US Open©Corinne Dubreuil/FFT

“I saw, like, a hundred of his matches”

Now, though, he must take Matteo Berrettini, all 6ft 5ins and 198lbs of him. They have never met before – everything about his run in New York is brand new to Berrettini – but the Italian knows Nadal of old. He has been watching the living legend for a lifetime.

“I saw, like, a hundred of his matches,” Berrettini said. “Who in this tour doesn't know Rafa? It's going to be tough, for sure, against him.

“I remember the finals in Rome against Coria, and I don't know how to say, they were showing the match on the TV but for free, you know. It was, like, on a channel that was [normally] about cartoons. I was young. These guys, I mean, six hours. Come on. I want to catch my cartoons.
“But I'm dreaming about playing these kind of matches. And now I'm here. So I'm happy.”

Whether he will be quite so happy after his first Grand Slam semi-final against Nadal, we will have to wait to see.