NEW YORK – Rafael Nadal was down 4-0 in a first-set tiebreaker against a bigger, younger opponent finding ways to cause trouble in their U.S. Open semifinal.
So, a reporter wanted to know later, was Nadal already thinking ahead to how to come back in the next set?
“No,” Nadal responded quickly, shaking his head. “No. My goal was to win that point.”
He did, of course. And while he would soon twice stand a single point from ceding that set, Nadal never panicked, never allowed himself a letdown. He hung tough, waited for 24th-seeded Matteo Berrettini to wilt ever so slightly and then pounced.
Nadal moved closer to a fourth U.S. Open championship and 19th Grand Slam title overall — one away from Roger Federer’s record for men — by pulling away for a 7-6 (8-6), 6-4, 6-1 victory over Berrettini on Friday night.
“I was a little bit lucky, no?” said Nadal, who will face No. 5 Daniil Medvedev of Russia in Sunday’s final. “I survived at that moment and . . . after that, the match completely changed.”
Sure did. He took the last four points of the tiebreaker, then broke once in the second set and three times in the third, while never facing a single break point in the match.
“For a good part of the match, I felt up to the test,” said Berrettini, a 23-year-old from Rome. “I was ready.”
But Berrettini is still learning his way, while Nadal is, as the Italian’s coach, Vincenzo Santopadre, put it: “a champion with a capital ‘C,’ superhuman.”
This will be Nadal’s 27th major final, and Medvedev’s first. They’ve played each other once before, in the final of the Montreal Masters hard-court tournament in August, and Nadal won 6-3, 6-0.
“He’s one of the more solid players on tour,” Nadal said. “He is making steps forward every single week.”
Medvedev advanced earlier Friday by beating Grigor Dimitrov 7-6 (7-5), 6-4, 6-3 for his tour-leading 50th win of the season.
The 23-year-old Russian first made a name for himself at the U.S. Open by earning the wrath of spectators. During his on-court interview Friday, Medvedev referenced his “tournament of controversies,” which included accumulating $19,000 in fines and antagonizing booing fans last week, saying he knew it was “not going to be easy with the public.”
Medvedev’s tennis was a bit scratchy Friday, and like Nadal, he barely avoided dropping the opening set. But he did just enough with his mostly defensive style to get past Dimitrov, who had eliminated Federer in a five-set quarterfinal.
“I do think he was better player in first set. I do think I was kind of lucky to win it,” Medvedev said. “Then the momentum changed completely. I think after, I was playing better than him.”
A year ago at this time, Nadal was retiring from his semifinal against Juan Martin del Potro because of knee pain. He’s famously had trouble with his body over the years, particularly when it comes to less-forgiving hard courts, but right now, he sure looks healthy, hale and hungry as ever.