NEW YORK — Almost everything involving Rafael Nadal’s marathon victory on Tuesday night (and ending on Wednesday morning) against a fellow top-10 player on the New York City late-night stage could be considered satisfying, as the three-time US Open champion outlasted another furious challenge on his attempt to collect Grand Slam win No. 18.
Then Rafa looked at his wristwatch.
Outside of crowning champions and creating legends, the hallmark of the United States Open Tennis Championships that makes this tournament stand out from any other major (and any tournament in general) is the number of legendary matches waged that commence on one day and end just a few hours before sunrise the next morning. After Nadal’s dramatic 0-6, 6-4, 7-5, 6-7 (4), 7-6 (5) victory over ninth-seeded Dominic Thiem, one that took four hours and 49 minutes to complete and ended with a Thiem error on an overhead smash at 2:03 AM, his place in US Open late-night lore, as well as a return trip to the semifinals, was secure.
Nadal’s win surely would evoke memories of another great lefty, Jimmy Connors, who, at age 39, thrilled crowds assembled inside Louis Armstrong Stadium with his remarkable run to the semifinals in 1991, one that included a five-set, first-round win against Patrick McEnroe that ended at 1:35 AM. Asked if winning a match deep into the night would make tonight’s win a little more memorable, Nadal, as he looked at his watch on his right wrist before answering, would have much preferred the comforts of a pillow at that moment than an ergonomic chair while sitting in the press conference room.
“Not that. What is important about this match is the level of tennis, the dramatic match. When the things happens like this, the atmosphere and the crowd became more special,” Nadal said to A Lot of Sports Talk. “People get involved. Yeah, it has been a great match, great atmosphere there. Happy to be part of it.
“But not because it’s three in the morning,” Nadal continued, amusingly while shaking his head. “I am not happy about this.”
Maybe not happy, but definitely triumphant and fortunate, especially given that Thiem came out smoking in the first set to the tune of a 6-0 evisceration of Nadal in which Rafa only won seven total points in the opening set.
“I am the guy to look at myself,” Nadal said when asked if he altered his racquet strings after the first set. “Nothing about the string. Nothing about the tension. Just about my negative level in the beginning of the match. I needed to move forward, to change that dynamic, and I did. But the first step to change that dynamic is not find an excuse on the racquet or on the string or on something that is not the true.
“The only [truth] is that you have to do things better to be able to fight for the point and fight for the match, no?,” Nadal continued. “I am a critic with myself. That’s all. I [played] a very bad set. He played well. When it was 4-0, the only thing that was in my mind was, ‘Okay, finish that set and just try to be ready for the beginning of the next.'”
Nadal was ready in the second set, winning 6-4, and then came back from a break down in the third set to win 7-5, breaking Thiem as he was serving for the third at 5-4 and then again to close the set out.
Instead of going gently into the good night after losing the thirdafter having it on his racquet, Thiem responded in the fourth set and, in the tiebreaker, conjured up some remarkable defense as he won the tiebreak 7-4 and forced a final set.
Each player held in their six service games of the fifth set, though Thiem had to dig out of a couple of break point chances for Nadal to maintain parity. A tense tiebreak followed and, on match point, an errant Thiem overhead while backpedaling from the net put closure to a match that might very well go down as the best of this year’s the tournament.
“Yeah, it’s going to be stuck in my mind forever. Forever I’m going to remember this match, for sure,” said Thiem, who also lost to Nadal in this year’s French Open final. “But, I mean, it’s cruel sometimes, tennis, you know, because I think this match didn’t really deserve a loser. But there has to be one. And I would say if we skip the first set, was really open match from the beginning to the end. Yeah, the way it ended up in the fifth set tiebreaker, there it’s 50/50. He made one more point than me.”
After the match, Nadal climbed over the net to meet Thiem, and the two embraced in a hug for a few seconds before walking over to shake hands with the chair umpire. Nadal admitted that he said he was sorry to Thiem during that embrace, something which Thiem confirmed…though with a slight hint of suspicion.
“Well, I don’t think he’s really sorry,” Thiem said jokingly.
The only thing Nadal might have been real sorry about was the time at the end of the match, but one thing is for certain: his victory surely prevented Nadal from having a sleepless night.