NEW YORK – Three quick thoughts on the U.S. Open men’s semifinals on Friday, where Rafael Nadal and Kevin Anderson advanced to the championship match.
• Kevin Anderson may be the most unlikely U.S. Open finalist in history. After beating Pablo Carreño Busta in four sets on Friday, the World No. 32 became the lowest-ranked man to reach the final in New York since the ATP debuted its rankings in 1973. He had a solid summer, making the Citi Open final and reaching the quarterfinals in Montreal—losing to Alexander Zverev in both tournaments—but he didn’t give any indication he was capable of what we’ve seen in Flushing Meadows, at least not this year.
Anderson may owe his place in the final partially to the litany of injuries that ravaged the men’s field before the tournament even began, but he deserves real credit for what he’s achieved here. It’s fitting that our first-time finalist, in a year defined by ageless wonders, is not a young player like Alexander Zverev or Nick Kyrgios, but a 31-year-old veteran of the tour. It’s refreshing to see a 30-something man not named Federer/Djokovic/Wawrinka reach a major final.
Can Anderson do the impossible, and beat Nadal? It’s highly unlikely, to say the least—Nadal is 4-0 against Anderson over his career, and he’s playing his best hard-court tennis in years. But Anderson has pulled off a U.S. Open surprise before: In 2015, he upset Andy Murray in the fourth round, acing Murray 26 times. Anderson’s best hope against Nadal lies in his powerful first serve. If he can consistently pound 130 mph-plus serves and force tiebreakers, he has a chance to pull off the upset.
• Of course, there’s another 31-year-old in the final, and his name is Rafael Nadal. After dropping the first set to del Potro, Nadal played perhaps his best hard-court set in years, giving del Potro a giant New York bagel. The Spaniard kept command of the match the rest of the way, easing to his first U.S. Open final since 2013 with a 4-6, 6-0, 6-3, 6-2 victory.
What was striking about Nadal’s downswing in 2015 and 2016 was that he never stopped genuinely believing in his ability to win big tournaments. “There is no more things to do other than keep practicing hard and keep practicing the same way that I have been doing for the past four, five months,” Nadal said after losing in the first round of the 2016 Australian Open to Fernando Verdasco. In other words, he felt he was doing all the right things, even if the results weren’t going his way. Nadal’s patience has paid off in a big way. Now, amazingly, the question is how long the Spaniard can sustain his resurgence.
• He may have come up short, but Juan Martin del Potro will leave Flushing Meadows as a hero of the tournament. It wasn’t the most memorable Grand Slam on the men’s side, but del Potro’s comeback against Dominic Thiem will go down in U.S. Open lore, especially because of his subsequent upset of Roger Federer.
Nadal was spectacular on Friday, but the whirlwind of the previous two rounds seemed as though it finally caught up to del Potro. After a strong first set, he ran out of gas, and unlike his match against Thiem, he wasn't able to find a reserve tank. But considering how far del Potro has come since his injury, it's hard not to be excited about his future.
Del Potro is the rare non-Big Four player who can truly ignite a crowd. On the men’s tour, I’d actually put him behind only Federer and Nadal in terms of his ability to get a crowd going. Del Potro might not quite be the player he was before injuries temporarily derailed his career, but he’s shown that he can seriously challenge for major titles in the future. Olé!