Monday, September 14, 2009

Del Potro Eliminates Nadal in Straight Sets

Rafael Nadal

Juan Martin del Potro of Argentina cruised to a crushing straight-sets defeat of Rafael Nadal of Spain, 6-2, 6-2, 6-2, in the first men’s semifinal of the United States Open.

Del Potro, seeded sixth, powered slashing forehands that pinned Nadal, seeded third, to the baseline, blunting Nadal’s vaunted running skills. It was Del Potro’s third successive victory this season over Nadal.

Del Potro broke Nadal’s serve almost at will, winning 6 of the 16 times he held break points. Nadal could not break Del Potro’s serve, which reached 134 miles an hour, once. The match was over in a brisk 2 hours 20 minutes.

“I can’t believe this moment,” del Potro said in an on-court interview after the match, adding that it was the happiest moment of his life.

Del Potro will be making his first appearance in a Grand Slam final. He will face the winner of the other men’s semifinal later today between top-seeded Roger Federer of Switzerland and fourth-seeded Novak Djokovic of Serbia.

The final, delayed because of persistent rains on Friday and Saturday, will take place on Monday not before 4 p.m. at Arthur Ashe Stadium.

“Tomorrow, I will fight until the final point,” he said.

Nadal, walking off the court, reflected that he had been “a bit unlucky” this year because of his injuries — after starting by winning the Australian Open, he missed Wimbledon with tendinitis in his knees and struggled to find his form since returning in August. Nadal also had praise for del Potro.

“To compete with this player is very difficult,” Nadal said. “He’s serving very well. He’s playing unbelievable.”

Third Set: Del Potro 4, Nadal 1

Del Potro showed a fearlessness in building a 40-15 lead, loping to net and putting away a leaping overhead smash. He drove a backhand approach shot into the net before driving Nadal into a defensive forehand that sailed long. The Del Potro express picked up speed. Momentum has taken a seat beside the driver.

Third Set: Del Potro 3, Nadal 1

Del Potro has begun to accelerate. Smashing ground strokes to opposite corners, forcing his power strokes to do his will, he has found a Nadal who seems helpless to strike back. Nadal wins a point here and there, then falls back. He has been unable to break Del Potro’s serve and has managed to reach only five break points. Del Potro has broken Nadal five of the 15 timeshe’s held a break point. The margin is widening. Unless Del Potro grows careless, he is headed to the final.

Nadal takes a 40-0 lead on his serve for what seems like the first time in many games. It is a moment of relief for his fans when he wins a game to trail by only one service break.

Third Set: Del Potro 2, Nadal 0

After Nadal emerged from his early career to win the French Open for the first time, his resourcefulness was sometimes regarded as something of a mistake. He seemed to extend points longer than necessary, running down every shot. Today, he’s having trouble extending even modest rallies. There’s fight in his strokes but the rallies end with a ball striking just beyond the baseline. At this stage of the third set, Del Potro has hit 23 winners and 25 unforced errors. Nadal’s statistics are out of balance, 15 winners and 25 unforced errors. Del Potro is winning the struggle of consistency.

Del Potro Wins Second Set, 6-2

The Nadal magic is fading in this match. His forehand found the net on the first breakpoint. It was reminiscent of the stroke Roger Federer hit feebly into the net in the 2008 Wimbledon final that ended in darkness. Things are looking dark now for Nadal. He can still win this match. But he’ll need a stroke of luck and a remarkable show of courage to pull it off.

Second Set: Del Potro 5, Nadal 2

Nadal’s surge fell short. Something is missing from his repertoire, a shot, a serve, a volley that would announce that he is ready to take the lead. He hasn’t been able to muster the game changing gesture such a shot would make. Del Potro remains constant, a formidable presence across the net. Nadal relinquishes a modest 0-30 advantage and spars over a few points, but it doesn’t change anything. Del Potro moves inexorably toward clinching the second set.

Second Set: Del Potro 4, Nadal 2

When he’s down, Nadal’s expression drifts into a kind scowl that suggests he has eaten something distasteful. This is the expression that crossed his face as he prepared to serve at 1-4. Within a minute, he was down, 30-40, and Del Potro was knocking at the door of the second set. Convinced he had to act, Nadal worked his way toward the net, forced Del Potro out wide and punched a forehand volley. It was only a moment’s respite. Del Potro stuck to his game plan, slashed a familiar inside-out forehand and Nadal was down a break point again. This is where champions appear. Nadal kept the ball in play for a long rally (about 10 to 12 shots) until Del Potro sailed a shot long. But the Argentine was banging at the door a moment later with another break point. Nadal repeated his rally-extending tactics until he rushed the net and forced another Del Potro backhand to miss the baseline. If Nadal was feeling panic he didn’t show it. Still the situation looked grim. Finally, Nadal returned so many shots that Del Potro lost concentration, spraying a forehand long and wide to lose the game.

Second Set: Del Potro 4, Nadal 1

The toll started to show in Nadal’s serving. Del Potro got to a break point with a slashing crosscourt forehand that bounded beyond Nadal’s reach. Nadal’s double fault was uncharacteristic -– but telling. The pressure is mounting in the score and perhaps in Nadal’s mind that this will not be an easy mountain to climb if Del Potro, two years younger, is able to carry off the second set. Nadal tried to increase the pressure, looking for a way to break Del Potro’s momentum. To keep his end of the score in the ascendance, Del Potro smashed an ace to pull to 30-30. Then Del Potro turned up the fire. Working his way to advantage Del Potro, he slashed a serve deep to the corner, pushed Nadal’s return to the far opposite corner, then smashed an overhead to bury Nadal’s hopes of a service break. Momentum built for Del Potro and it will be hard for Nadal to ignore it.

Second Set: Del Potro 2, Nadal 1

Now we’ve seen the first touch shot of the match since Nadal’s whisper-soft drop shot in the first point of the match. Nadal spun a forehand into the forecourt to score a winner as he approached the net. Neither player had tried much in the way of finesse until this point. Nadal seems to be trying to mix the pace and direction of his shots. He bought a little more time –- perhaps 10 seconds extra — by complaining to the chair umpire about a call that a line person had already corrected. Extra seconds of oxygen cannot be dismissed as trivial in a match where every point has a life of its own. It didn’t pay off, however, as Del Potro continued to pound the ball deep into Nadal’s territory, forcing him to hit his 15th unforced error of the match to surrender the game.

Second Set: Del Potro 1, Nadal 0

Del Potro seemed to find and exploit a more limited range of cross movement in Nadal, forcing him into two errors – one backhand, one forehand – when forced to move from side to side. When he didn’t move Nadal, Del Potro paid for it. He lost a short rally by giving Nadal a chance to hit an inside-out forehand of his own. Soon, Nadal had fashioned a breakpoint of his own, but couldn’t convert. To catch his breath, it seemed, he challenged a call that looked close but not in. But it didn’t yield him enough energy to return Del Potro’s serve up the T and the Argentine raced forward into the second set by winning his serve.

Del Potro Wins First Set, 6-2

Nadal looked mildly irritated when he fell behind, 15-40, facing two set points. He saved the first by fighting fire with fire, hitting deeper groundstrokes that approached the baseline in a series of strikes. He saved the second break point with an ace that caught Del Potro looking the wrong way. But Nadal couldn’t decipher the ball’s direction when Del Potro slashed an inside-out forehand to the corner. Changing tactics at a crucial moment, Del Potro feinted still another shot to Nadal’s backhand but pulled a winner to the opposite field.

Nadal will need to reverse this momentum established by Del Potro in the second set if he hopes to alter the direction of the match.

Score: Del Potro 5, Nadal 2

For once, Del Potro’s power shot didn’t work. He seemed determined to drive the ball up the middle to within an inch of the baseline. This one sailed long. Nadal was able to squeeze out a game on his serve, which he must continue doing to stay in this set. Scrambling on Del Potro’s serve, Nadal seemed to be on the defensive. Yet he had the speed to force Del Potro into errors at the net and baseline. At 30-30 on Del Potro’s serve, Nadal needed the point badly. He raced to his right to slap back a service return, then another ground stroke, then raced to his left, and brought the crowd into a burst of cheers by whipping a forehand crosscourt beyond Del Potro’s reach. This kept Nadal in the game. It would seem to have paid off. Del Potro double faulted, giving Nadal a break point. Del Potro did what a big-serving player must, he jammed the next serve into Nadal’s forehand and the Spaniard sailed it wide.

Still scrambling, he challenged two calls in a single game. The strategy paid off when the second call was reversed. Then Nadal planted a backhand right into Del Potro’s hitting zone. The Argentine faltered and hit the net. This battle raged. Del Potro finished it with an ace and appeared to finish the game stronger than when he started it.

Score: Del Potro 4, Nadal 1

Del Potro literally got off the mat and served an ace to stand one point from a three-game lead. He slipped at the baseline, thought about the indignity of falling, then rose and slammed an ace. Two points later, he slammed another serve up the T and jumped into the lead. Del Potro seems to be making more use of his strength and flexibility to push Nadal to the wall.

Score: Del Potro 3, Nadal 1

Del Potro positioned himself behind the alley on the backhand side to return serve, convinced that Nadal can take points by slicing the ball wide on his left-handed delivery. Del Potro stayed closer to the center line when returning from the forehand court. The tactics played at least a minor role in Del Potro’s ability to break Nadal’s serve. Ready when the serve arrived, he moved into the point more quickly.

Score: Del Potro 2, Nadal 1

Although he lost point that will make the highlight reel -– sending an overhead smash long while on his knees after successfully returning a shot through his legs -– Nadal is winning the battle of the long rallies. He needs to win these, because Del Potro is pressuring him, pinning him to the baseline. Nadal showed a bit of impatience on the second of two break points he lost. He had pushed the Argentine to the brink of a service break at 15-40, but let him escape. Nadal’s two forehand errors let Del Potro off the hook. Impatience won’t serve either player well.

Score: Nadal 1, Del Potro 1

The sounds of Ashe Stadium are amplified by television technicians capturing the vibrations from the ball as it is struck. When Nadal won the first point on a drop shot, he grazed the ball so lightly that it was like a whisper, barely audible. Running from the baseline, Del Potro could only clip it into the net. All the rest of the first game was a picture of Del Potro’s concerted effort to keep the ball bounding toward Nadal’s backhand. This is apparently a weakness (few others see it) Del Potro believes can be exploited. Another factor in his favor: He is returning serve to great depth, often clipping the baseline. Nadal, usually nimble, is finding it difficult to pick up the return. That has played a part in forcing Nadal into a long service game. Whatever benefit it held for Del Potro, he lost concentration in the rallies and cuffed two consecutive shots to lose the game on Nadal’s serve.


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