Rafael Nadal (above) was broken for the first time at this year's U.S. Open, but rallied to dispense of compatriot Fernando Verdasco in straight sets. (AP)
As athlete role models go, you could do worse than the two Spaniards who vied for the remaining U.S. Open semifinal spot at Arthur Ashe Stadium on Thursday night.
For the Type-A's, there was Rafael Nadal. Just 24 years old, he’s no longer merely the best player in Spain, no longer simply the game’s greatest clay-court specialist. He’s No. 1 in the world, summiting the sport on the strength of yet another dominant season on clay and a pair of wins at the French Open and Wimbledon. Everything about his game is OCD, from the way he meticulously fiddles with his water bottles during changeovers to the extensive work he put in this year to tweak his serve. Of course along with that serve, he boasts natural wheels and high-r.p.m. groundstrokes -- but his greatest asset at this year's Open may well be his health. The fact that he has never been so fresh so late in the season is why this may be his best shot to break through at this tournament.
For the Type-B's, there was Verdasco. Like Nadal, he turned pro in 2001, stands over six feet and cracks wicked left-handed groundstrokes from both wings. But unlike Nadal, he hasn’t pursued his career with the same sense of urgency. Instead, his successes have come off the court in the dating game. (In fact, the only edge he may have on Nadal is in the rugged good looks department.) Past girlfriends include models (Dafne Fernández, Priscila De Gustin) and even WTA players (Gisela Dulko and Ana Ivanovic).
As for Verdasco’s on-court game, well that’s a different story. Understand: Verdasco isn’t chopped chorizo. (He is No. 8 in the world after all, and in the previous round he rallied from two sets down to defeat another Spaniard, David Ferrer, in five sets.) He’s just nowhere near as good as Nadal -- a fact made plain every time they face each other.
Through their first 10 meetings, Verdasco had yet to take a match. The closest he came was last year’s Australian Open, pushing Nadal to the limit in a five-hour-and-14-minute five-setter that would go down as the longest in tournament history. On Thursday night, it appeared Verdasco might challenge Nadal again. He broke Nadal at love in the third game, snapping his streak of 62 straight service games won. But Nadal quickly rebounded, breaking back in the eighth game, volleying his way to a first-set lead and cruising to a 7-5, 6-3, 6-4 finish.
Nadal moves on to his third straight semifinal here. (On Saturday, he will face 12th-seeded Mikhail Youzhny of Russia, who outlasted Switzerland’s Stanislas Wawrinka in a four-hour five-setter.) As for what lies beyond that for Nadal, “I think that he will play the final against Roger,” Verdasco said. “It’s gonna be a tough match because I think Roger plays really good in these conditions.”
Still, Nadal refuses to get ahead of himself. “I am in the semifinals,” he said. “I don’t think about the final. Everybody is free to think, and what Fernando says is completely fair.”