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Nadal survives Thiem test to reach semis, Stephens ousted

Updated September 06, 2018

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SPAIN’S Rafael Nadal returns the ball to Dominic Thiem of Austria during their US Open quarter-final at the USTA Billie Jean King National Tennis Center.—AFP
SPAIN’S Rafael Nadal returns the ball to Dominic Thiem of Austria during their US Open quarter-final at the USTA Billie Jean King National Tennis Center.—AFP

NEW YORK: Defending champion Rafa Nadal failed to win a single game in the opening set of his US Open quarter-final against Dominic Thiem on Tuesday but fought back to beat the Austrian 0-6, 6-4, 7-5, 6-7, 7-6 in match that ended past 2:00am in New York.

But women’s title holder Sloane Stephens, the world number three, crashed out when she lost to 19th seeded Latvian Anastasija Sevastova 6-2, 6-3.

Nadal won just 40 percent of his first serves in the first set as he struggled with the high humidity on the Arthur Ashe Stadium court, as Thiem became the first player to ‘bagel’ the Spaniard at Flushing Meadows since Andy Roddick 14 years ago.

“It’s been a great battle,” an exhausted Nadal said. “The conditions were tough, very humid for me.”

Thiem, who lost to Nadal in the French Open final but who has beaten the Spaniard three times in 10 previous meetings, struck 74 winners, including 24 with his stylish single-handed backhand, to keep the champion under constant pressure.

“I’m very sorry for Dominic,” Nadal added. “He’s a close friend on tour, a great guy and I wish him the very best ... He is young and has plenty of time to win tournaments.”

After Nadal roared back to take a 2-1 lead, the fourth set went to a tiebreak. Thiem raced to a 3-0 lead before Nadal fought back, but the Austrian held his nerve to level the match.

There were no breaks of serve in the deciding set and a second tiebreak ensued. The two were neck-in-neck at 5-5 when Nadal carved out a match point with his forehand.

Thiem’s wayward overhead smash handed the match to Nadal, who stood midcourt with his head thrown back and arms raised in the air in celebration.

“Thank you very much everybody for staying here tonight,” Nadal said after the four hour, 49 minute marathon. “It’s been an amazing feeling.”

Next up for the top seed is a semi-final clash with big-serving Argentine and third seed Juan Martin del Potro, who defeated home player John Isner 6-7, 6-3, 7-6, 6-2.

During that earlier quarter-final, Isner doubled over and rested his elbows on his knees. He grimaced. He shook his head. He looked as if he wanted to be anywhere but where he was: falling further and further behind in energy-robbing heat.

Six-time champion Serena Williams shook off a sluggish start to power past eighth-seeded Karolina Pliskova 6-4, 6-3 into the semi-finals.

The US superstar, chasing a record-equalling 24th major title, surrendered an early break to Pliskova, but she roared back with a streak of eight straight games to put away the opening set and take a 4-0 lead in the second against the woman who beat her in the semi-finals here in 2016.

“I just wanted to play better,” Williams said of her mindset as she trailed 3-1 in the first. “I was thinking, you know, I can play better, so that was the good news.”

Williams did indeed cut down on the errors, and came up with the big serves when she needed them.

She finished the match with 13 aces and will take on Anastasija Sevastova for a place in the final after the 19th-seeded Latvian toppled defending champion Sloane Stephens 6-2, 6-3.

Pliskova managed to convert just two of 12 break point chances in the contest.

CZECH Republic’s Karolina Pliskova returns the ball against Serena Williams of the US during their quarter-final.—AFP
CZECH Republic’s Karolina Pliskova returns the ball against Serena Williams of the US during their quarter-final.—AFP

Williams did drop her serve once in the second, coughing up one of her five double faults on break point as Pliskova narrowed the gap to 4-1.

But when she fell behind 0-40 in the seventh game she rescued herself with 112 mph (180 km/h) service winner followed by another service winner and an ace.

Pliskova got another chance when Williams batted a forehand into the net, but another booming serve, a backhand winner and an unreturnable serve saw her safely through the danger.

Serving for the match at 5-3 Williams didn’t allow any room for doubt, holding at love with two aces and an overhead smash followed by one last ace.

World number three Stephens, refused to blame the punishing afternoon heat and humidity for her lapses against Sevastova, including an inability to convert any of seven break chances in the opening set.

“When you don’t play big points well, the match can get away from you,” she said. “Mentally, physically, I just wasn’t connecting.”

Sevastova herself relies on variety more than power, and she caught a slow-moving Stephens with a number of drop shots and drop shot-lob combinations.

After taking a 4-1 lead in the second set, Sevastova admitted she had flash backs to last year’s quarter-finals, when an 83rd-ranked Stephens rallied from a break down in the third to upset Sevastova in a tiebreaker.

Indeed Stephens fought back to narrow the gap to 4-3, but Sevastova grabbed another break with a well-timed drop shot for a 5-3 lead and sealed the victory on her third match point when a weary Stephens put a backhand into the net.

The defeats of Stephens and Pliskova completed the exodus of top 10 seeds, although Pliskova noted that Williams’ 17th seeding — nine spots above her world ranking as she continues her post-baby comeback — was not reflective of her true abilities.

Tuesday’s results (prefix number denotes seeding):

Men’s singles:

Quarter-finals: 1-Rafael Nadal (Spain) bt 9-Dominic Thiem (Austria) 0-6, 6-4, 7-5, 6-7 (4-7), 7-6 (7-5); 3-Juan Martin del Potro (Argentina) bt 11-John Isner (US) 6-7 (5-7), 6-3, 7-6 (7-4), 6-2.

Women’s singles:

Quarter-finals: 17-Serena Williams (US) bt 8-Karolina Pliskova (Czech Republic) 6-4, 6-3; 19-Anastasija Sevastova (Latvia) bt 3-Sloane Stephens (US) 6-2, 6-3.

Published in Dawn, September 6th, 2018