NEW YORK -- Normalcy returned to an abnormal U.S. Open on Friday afternoon. The sun roared over Queens, and the boldfaced names (led by First Lady Michele Obama) came back to the once-waterlogged Billie Jean King National Tennis Center. But the biggest sign that all was right in the tennis world again was the play of second-seeded Rafael Nadal, who surgically dismantled Andy Roddick in a quarterfinal that didn't last two hours. "It was evident pretty early that he was in full control of things," Roddick said.
That he was. Nadal bullied around a sluggish-looking Roddick and crushed winners from both wings, especially the forehand side in a 6-2, 6-1, 6-3 rout. He broke Roddick six times, won 84 percent of his first serves, and drained the energy out of Arthur Ashe Stadium, which already was only filled to about half its capacity. "I think you'd rather be booed than have silence, "Roddick said. "You know, it's an empty feeling. It's not fun."
The match started under a bright sun at 4:29 p.m. -- with the First Lady chatting up Billie Jean King in a private box -- and Roddick was in trouble from the first ball. The game plan was to take advantage of his booming serve and avoid long rallies, and Roddick failed badly on both counts. He tried to be aggressive by serving and volleying, only to find a couple of wicked Nadal forehands zoom by him (Nadal had 22 forehand winners for the match; Roddick had zero). After 13 minutes, Nadal was up 3-0 with two early breaks. Twenty-six minutes later the first set was over when Roddick returned a Nadal serve long. The lone highlight for the Roddick camp came when a fan screamed out in the final game, "I love you, Brooklyn," a nod to Roddick's wife, the model Brooklyn Decker. That's how quiet it was: The entire stadium heard it.
Roddick said afterward that he had "zero reserves" following a limited schedule this summer and a tough four-set win Thursday over Nadal's countryman, fifth-seeded David Ferrer. The American played here with his lowest ever seeding at a Grand Slam (No. 21) after dropping out of the Top 20 for the first time in 10 years. "Just felt just like nothingness, no quick switch at all," Roddick said.
Had he been at his best, it still might not have derailed Nadal, who broke Roddick in the opening game of the second set and again in the fifth game. At one point, Nadal won 12 consecutive points in the set to take a 5-1 lead. The second set lasted all of 29 minutes. "That's the most aggressive I've seen him play this summer," Roddick said. "He came out swinging. I think he tends to play himself into tournaments, and then by the end, he's taking cuts. I feel like today he was doing that."
"I think I am playing well since the second round," Nadal said. "I'm very happy about this U.S. Open. I will try my best to be in the final, but even if I lose tomorrow, I am happy about my U.S. Open. It wasn't an easy situation for me coming to this tournament after having a not easy summer for me. I am doing a lot of things much better than few weeks ago. For me win is important, but feel myself very competitive and have the feeling that I can win is probably even more important."
By his own admission, Nadal's summer has been lousy, including burning his hand at a Japanese steakhouse last month. He lost to 33rd-ranked Ivan Dodig in the second round of Montreal (after receiving a first-round bye) and American Mardy Fish in the quarters of Cincinnati (after barely escaping Fernando Verdasco in the previous round). In July he lost his No. 1 ranking when he fell in four sets to Novak Djokovic in the finals of Wimbledon. But his play has picked up at the Open while offering his fans a funhouse of news from Flushing Meadows.
Last Sunday Nadal suffered cramps during the Spanish portion of his postmatch news conference, sliding below a chair and vanishing under the interview podium. He remained on the floor for eight minutes while trainers stretched his right leg and brought him ice and a drink. Four days later, before he took the court on a rainy Wednesday, he complained about the ATP not keeping him abreast of his start time. After he left the court that afternoon, SI.com's Jon Wertheim reported
Indeed, Nadal has been very public here against what he perceived as the avarice of tournament officials and the prospect of someone on his side of the draw playing four matches in four days. (The USTA has since announced a revised schedule, with a Monday men's final.) "Having the semifinals on Saturday, you know, is something crazy for the players," Nadal said Wednesday. "The tournament is not important without the players. ... The players are a big part of this show. ... The problem is we don't have enough power in these kind of tournaments. That's what have to change very soon."
No man has retained the Open title since Roger Federer in 2008 but defending champion Nadal has come to enjoy playing in New York. It was here last year that he became the seventh man in history to win all four Grand Slams titles and the youngest man in Open history to do so. Now comes a semifinal meeting with fourth-seeded Andy Murray, who also knocked out an American on Friday with a four-set win over John Isner. Nadal holds a 12-4 career edge over Murray, including beating him in the semifinals of the French Open and Wimbledon this year.
Asked about Nadal, Murray stressed the importance of having comfortable service games -- something Roddick failed to do on Friday. The match will follow the Roger Federer-Novak Djokovic semifinal, and the winner of each men's semis will then enjoy a day off.
"When I've won against him, it's always been on hard courts," Murray said. "It's a good surface for me to play him on. Obviously at the French I would go into that match not being a favorite; then Wimbledon I've got a chance, but his record has been great there. I think on the American hard courts I think it's a close, close matchup."
Not if Nadal plays the way he did on Friday. He might the tournament's second seed but Nadal is now playing like the man to beat.