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  • After overcoming a titanic effort from Diego Schwartzman, Grand Slam No. 19 looks likelier than ever for Rafa Nadal.
By Daniel Rapaport
September 05, 2019

NEW YORK — Novak Djokovic lost on Sunday. Roger Federer lost on Tuesday. On Wednesday, the third member of tennis’ ruling triumvirate managed to avoid that same fate.

Rafael Nadal is through to the U.S. Open semifinal after overcoming a titanic effort from 5’7” Diego Schwartzman, ultimately winning a three-setter (6-4, 7-5, 6-2) that was anything but routine.

"He is one of the best players in the world," a complimentary Nadal said of his opponent after the match. "He is able to win against anybody. Tonight was, for me, a tough match. I'm very happy with the victory."

If the tennis gods were just, Schwartzman's effort would have yielded at least one set. He fought and fought more and then, for good measure, he added some fight after that. Spurred on by a sparse but boisterous Argentinian contingent—Ole, ole ole ole! Diego! Diego! was the chant of choice—and a New York crowd in awe that a man that size could go toe-to-toe with tennis’ personification of ruthlessness, the world No. 21 made the 18-time Grand Slam champion earn every single point. He repeatedly refused to cede an inch in baseline slugfests and kept clawing his way back when he had no business doing so.

After Nadal jumped out to a 4-0 lead in the first set, Schwartzman promptly won four games in a row to get back on serve. When Nadal went up 5-1 in the second set, he did the darn thing again, delivering maybe the point of the tournament in the process.  

Nadal did well to wait out the momentum shifts and pounce when he needed to. He summoned breaks as Schwartzman served to stay in the first and second set, with the Argentine dumping unforced errors into the net to seal both. The third stanza was a bit more straightforward, with Nadal breaking to go up 4-2 and adding another break to close it out.

"I won many good points today," Schwartzman said. "But in the big moments, I just didn't feel comfortable."

Nadal’s opponent in Friday’s semifinal will be the polar opposite of Schwartzman, at least physically. Matteo Berrettini, the No. 24 seed who beat Gael Monfils in a kooky five-setter earlier in the day, is a solid 6’5” and probably 25 pounds heavier than his listed 198 pounds. His serve tops out near 135 miles per hour. And while Schwartzman seemed content to trade groundstrokes, Berretini will look to end points quickly.

"What can you expect in the semifinals of a Grand Slam?" Nadal said. "You can't expect an easy opponent. You can't expect an easy match."

While it might not be easy, Nadal goes into that match as a prohibitive favorite. Berrettini’s backhand is a weakness, which Nadal will surely target with his topspin cross-court forehand. The 24-year-old form Italy is coming off a taxing four-hour battle and has had every match in this tournament go at least four sets. He has never played this deep into a best-of-five, two-week event—Berrettini’s previous best result in a Grand Slam was reaching the fourth round at Wimbledon this year—and he has never played Rafael Nadal, who will be making his 33rd Slam semifinal appearance.

Assuming the left arm injury that forced him to take a medical timeout against Schwartzman is nothing serious, Nadal should be able to handle business and reach the final, where he’ll play either Daniil Medvedev or Grigor Dimitrov. Medvedev has played the best tennis of anyone during the American hard-court swing, reaching back-to-back finals in Washington D.C. and Toronto before winning his first Masters 1000 title in Cincinnati. But he’s also playing the most tennis of anyone; Friday’s match will be his 22nd in the last 37 summer days, and there are already signs that the body is fed up—he almost retired in the first set of his quarterfinal victory over Stanislas Wawrinka with what he thought was a torn quadriceps. Medvedev, too, will be playing in his first major semifinal. 

The other potential opponent in the final is Grigor Dimitrov, who will play in his third Slam semifinal but first since the 2017 Australian Open. Dimitrov was once ranked as high as No. 3 in the world but has had a dismal 2019, racking up a 12-15 record on the year before his Cinderella run that included a shock upset of Roger Federer. He entered this week ranked No. 78 in the world and has won exactly one of his 13 meetings with Nadal.

There is no such thing as a sure-thing in tennis—Federer and Dimitrov made that unmistakably clear—but the draw has done Nadal oh-so-many favors. With Djokovic and Federer nowhere to be found, Grand Slam No. 19 looks likelier than ever. That would pull him within one of Federer’s all-time record, closer than he’s ever been to equaling his longtime rival. This one may not be as memorable as the previous 18, given the opponents. But in the record books, they all count the same.

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