FLUSHING MEADOW, NY—Rafael Nadal consolidated his year-long comeback to the No. 1 rank on the ATP Tour last night, dominating a courageous but vulnerable Juan-Martin del Potro in four sets at the Billie Jean King Tennis Center in Queens. He earned a date to Sunday’s U.S. Open final with first-time finalist Kevin Anderson, who kept his nerve in a hard-hitting service and baseline duel with Pablo Carreno-Busta in the first men’s semi-final match.
American women were in full control in their semis, as Sloane Stephens and Madison Keys emerged triumphant from the all-American ladies’ draw semi-final against the legendary Venus Williams and the gritty Cocco Vandeweghe in the ladies’ draw. At 24 and 22, Misses Stephens and Keys reached their first Grand Slam finals with their best tennis. Miss Key’s game is characterized by aggressive baseline power based on a big forehand. Miss Stephens, by no means a slouch for deep groundstrokes and fast pace, has developed a brainy game of defense that depends on patience and nerves as she prepares the moment to strike.
Miss Vandeweghe had been playing inspired and high-spirited aggressive tennis throughout the tournament, knocking off the No. 1 seed Karolina Pliskova in the quarter-finals, but by all accounts including hers nothing clicked in the semi and we went down quickly to a consistently fierce Madison Keys, 6-1, 6-2.
Miss Williams, at 37 as elegant and stunning with her overwhelming forehands as she was when she first won this tournament in 2000, made her match one of the best of the fortnight but finally surrendered, netting a weak backhand return of serve Thursday night as Miss Stephens raised her arms in joy.
At the close of the most wide-open U.S. Open in years, only one past winner and top seed reaches the final. Rafa Nadal will be aiming for his third title at Flushing Meadows, and there is no doubt he is the big favorite. After a tentative first set in which del Potro’s huge forehands to the lines kept him off balance, Nadal adjusted his rhythm and his aim and pounded away at the Argentine champ’s backhand with all the accuracy and short variety for which he is justly known. While the match produced gorgeously competitive points almost to the end, there was no question who was dictating overall pace and play, as the Spaniard went 6-0, 6-3, 6-4 after dropping the first set 4-6.
After losing the Australian Open to Roger Federer at the start of the season, taking the French without losing a set, and making a run to the fourth round at Wimbledon, Nadal is poised to end the year in glory, equaling his great friend and rival’s two Slams this year. Federer, who won Wimbledon after sitting out Roland-Garros, was expected to meet Nadal in the semis, but faltered against del Potro in the quarters and was the first to say the man of Tandil deserved the win and had the better chance against the man of Manacor.
South Africa’s Kevin Anderson, who won over the packed Ashe Stadium with his emotional win, is admired, not least by Nadal, for his tenacity in staying focused on tennis despite serious injuries; and reaching a Slam final at 31 surely represents a poster case of professional commitment.
But as Nadal quickly acknowledged, he is also a dangerous opponent, with one of the best serves on the Tour (22 aces last night), adroit play at the net with his big wingspan (he stands six-foot-eight), and a strong forehand that falters in long baseline rallies but nevertheless allowed him to dominate the higher-seeded Carreno-Busta with passing winners in the stretch. Nadal goes into Sunday’s match the heavy favorite, but, as always, there will not be a whisper of complacency in either man’s game from the first point on.