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Rafael Nadal battles past Karen Khachanov in third-rond encounter

AP

Rafael Nadal’s knee was bothering him. His decade-younger, barrel-chested U.S. Open foe was bashing the ball.

The defending champion was two points away from falling into a two-set hole. Then he was two points away from dropping the third set. And then he was one point from losing the fourth set and being pushed to a fifth.

As all of those key moments presented themselves, he managed to come through. The No. 1-ranked Nadal overcame a shaky start Friday and used his customary relentless style to wear down No. 27 seed Karen Khachanov physically and mentally, eventually getting to the fourth round with an entertaining and back-and-forth 5-7, 7-5, 7-6 (9-7), 7-6 (7-3) victory that took 4 hours, 23 minutes.

“I escaped a very tough situation,” Nadal said, “so it’s a great thing.”

The man he beat in last year’s final at Flushing Meadows, No. 5 Kevin Anderson, got through his own tough test against an up-and-coming opponent, edging No. 28 Denis Shapovalov 3-6, 6-4, 6-4, 4-6, 6-4.

After Nadal ceded the opening set, he had a trainer put tape under his right knee, which has caused problems off-and-on for the Spaniard over the years. Nadal later got more wrapping there during a 10-minute break at 5-all in the second set while the retractable roof at Arthur Ashe Stadium was shut because of light rain.

Just prior to the delay, Khachanov had served for that set at 5-4, and three times was two points away from taking it. But he couldn’t get closer than that. Nadal broke for 5-5 and, after the delay, broke again to even it at a set apiece, aided by two double-faults from Khachanov. When Nadal earned that set with a passing shot that drew an errant volley, he crouched and yelled. Folks sitting in his guest box rose. A chunk of the crowd gave a standing ovation. Khachanov swatted a ball in disgust.

The end of the third set was similar: Khachanov twice was two points from owning it and couldn’t get across the line, helping Nadal with three double-faults in the tiebreaker. And while Nadal kept letting set points slip away, four in all, he made No. 5 count, and how. It was a quintessential Nadal point, too: a 40-stroke exchange — yes, 40! — that featured so much defense from Nadal until Khachanov netted a backhand, then tossed his racket on the sideline.

“I needed that set, of course,” Nadal said.

He had one more pivotal part to get through: Khachanov’s set point in the fourth while ahead 6-5 as Nadal served at 30-40. But Khachanov put a forehand in the net there, and after a thrilling point that featured a drop shot, a lob, a leaping ‘tweener by Khachanov and a volley winner by Nadal, they headed to another tiebreaker.

This one was pretty much all Nadal.

In women’s action, Serena Williams equaled her most-lopsided victory ever in 30 professional meetings with sister Venus, beating her 6-1, 6-2 in the third round.

Serena shook off an early ankle injury to win seven straight games and seize control in perhaps her most dominant performance since giving birth to her a daughter a year ago Saturday.

The sisters’ earliest meeting in a Grand Slam tournament in 20 years was over early, with Venus unable to do anything to blunt Serena’s power, even after the crowd tried desperately to get behind her early in the second set.

Earlier, 2017 champion Sloane Stephens betrayed a lot more emotion on that court than she usually shows anywhere, all of the double fist pumps making perfectly clear just how tight and tense things had been during her 6-3, 6-4 win against two-time runner-up Victoria Azarenka.

Stephens, the No. 3 seed, grabbed the last three games after returning from a brief break while the Ashe roof was shut (it was then reopened before Nadal vs. Khachanov).