Kevin Armstrong
Sunday September 13th, 2009

NEW YORK -- Rafael Nadal's defensive displays can resemble Jackie Chan's in style and improbability. Fans today half expect the magician from Majorca to climb the court's back walls, flip in the air and breezily land line-painting winners.

But performance space was difficult to come by against Juan Martin del Potro in the semifinals of the U.S. Open on Sunday. The gangly Argentine's size (6-foot-6) and pterodactyl wingspan overwhelmed Nadal, suffocating angles he typically exploits for passing shots and forcing him to contort his game to fit into del Potro's strengths.

"Today was an impossible match," said Nadal's uncle, Toni, who also serves as his coach.

Del Potro dismissed Nadal 6-2, 6-2, 6-2 with striking ease. His two-handed backhands steam-pressed every topspin wrinkle Nadal sent his way. His fire-breathing forehand burnt Nadal on multiple points, giving him the confidence to blast away when necessary. Nadal continuously crunched his face into a confused expression, while del Potro -- soundless on the court -- appeared imperturbable in advancing to his first Grand Slam final.

"I have a good sensation with everything," said del Potro, who will face five-time defending champion Roger Federer in Monday's final.

For all his game's growing depth, expanding the width of his serve was the weapon that best opened holes for his ground strokes to plow through. By going wide, he extended Nadal's runs, forcing him to return serves as high as 133 mph that cut through the breezy playing area. Nadal -- whose abdominal region was heavily wrapped to protect a strain -- positioned himself far behind the baseline, but struggled to find a comfort point from which to attack.

"He is serving unbelievable," said Nadal, who shortened his own stroke to ease pressure on his core. "From the baseline he has very good control."

More was revealed about Nadal's condition with each match played in Flushing. He first strained a muscle last month in Montreal during his first tournament back from resting his sore left knee. Tests did not show any condition that should keep him out of competition, but he underwent an MRI on his abs following his next tournament in Cincinnati. Again, he was cleared to play, but finally admitted after Sunday's loss that he had competed through pain during the Open.

"Maybe if I broke a leg or something [I would stop]," Nadal said. "I didn't want to do a test during the tournament because I was going to play anyway."

Del Potro looked the picture of health on the court. Awkward in build, his legs got tangled on a return in the first set, and fell out form under him another time, leaving him to crumble to the ground in embarrassment. Still, when he found his footing, he approached the net with a galloping gait and stared down Nadal's every riposte. Whether it was at the net or on the baseline, del Potro -- the Grim Reaper dressed in all black -- towered over Nadal.

Del Potro now must conquer Federer to win his first Grand Slam title. The top seed sprinkled center court with his own fairy dust in his semifinal victory against Novak Djokovic. With the Serb serving to stay in the match in the third set, Federer fired off a between-the-legs passing shot to set up match point. If del Potro is to win Monday, he will have to suppress another magician's act.

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