NEW YORK (AP) – Rafael Nadal felt the pain sear into his right knee early in his United States (US) Open semi-finals, on what he called “a bad movement”. It was a familiar pain, one that he’s dealt with off-and-on for years.
The defending champion looked up at his guest box and indicated something was wrong. He tried to continue. Eventually, he could not.
Nadal stopped playing after dropping the opening two sets on Friday night, putting Juan Martin del Potro back in a Grand Slam final for the first time since winning the 2009 title at Flushing Meadows.
“That was not a tennis match at the end. Just one player playing, the other staying on one side of the court,” Nadal said. “I hate to retire, but staying one more set out there, playing like this, would be too much for me.”
Today, number three del Potro will face number three Novak Djokovic, who advanced with an emphatic 6-3, 6-4, 6-2 victory over number 21 Kei Nishikori in the second semi-final match.
“I don’t know how it looked, but it felt really good,” said Djokovic, who reached his record-tying eighth final in New York as he aims for a third US Open championship and 14th major title. “Great intensity, great focus, good game plan. Obviously easier said than done. You have to execute the shots.”
He missed last year’s US Open because of an injured right elbow, which eventually required surgery this February. But he is now back to his best, as evidenced by a Wimbledon title in July and his run in New York, where Djokovic has won his past 13 sets.
“Very solid everything,” was 2014 Open runner-up Nishikori’s assessment after failing to break Djokovic while losing a 14th consecutive match to him. “Serve. Return. Groundstrokes. He was playing aggressive.” Del Potro was leading 7-6 (3), 6-2 after two hours of play when Nadal shook his head and said he had to retire, becoming the first man in the half-century professional era to do so during a semi-final or final at the US Open.
“Of course, it’s not the best way to win a match,” said del Potro, who hugged Nadal when it was over. “I don’t like to see him suffering on court today. So I’m sad for him.”
The number one-ranked Nadal has a history of tendinitis in his knees and a trainer put tape below that joint after the match’s seventh game. At the next changeover, Nadal pulled off the tape. Then, in the second set, Nadal took a medical timeout for a fresh taping.
By the end, he was walking with a bit of a hitch in his gait. When he approached the chair umpire to complain about a late call from a line judge, Nadal mentioned in passing that he was going to quit. Soon enough, he did.
Nadal wasn’t sure what lingering effects there might have been from his quarterfinal victory over Dominic Thiem, which lasted five sets and nearly five hours. The Spaniard, 32, did have that same knee taped during his win against Karen Khachanov in the third round.
For del Potro, it was an odd way to return to an important summit. Nine years ago, he stunned Nadal in the semi-finals, then Roger Federer in the final, to win the US Open at 20 years old. He was considered a rising star, but a series of wrist operations – one on his dominant right arm, and three on his left – slowed his career and kept him out of two-and-a-half years’ worth of major tournaments.
He has returned to the height of his powers and the height of his sport.
“It means a lot to me,” del Potro said. “I didn’t expect to get to another Grand Slam final.”