FLUSHING MEADOWS, NY – The ball sped off the strings so fast for a moment it appeared the force of the swing could send a vibration dampener spinning around the string bed like a particularly lively super ball bounding around a roulette wheel. Rafael Nadal watched his final serve land safely and exploded into the air like a man propelled from his own personal launching pad. He landed in his first career US Open final after wrapping up a 6-2, 6-3, 6-4 triumph over Mikhail Youzhny in today’s semifinal.
The semifinal had served as a stop sign for Nadal in each of the past two years — he fell to Andy Murray in a rain-interrupted 2008 semifinal and was blown off the court by big-hitting Argentine Juan Martin del Potro in last September’s semis — but the top-seeded Spaniard played with authoritative ambition in surging to his 20th consecutive Grand Slam victory today.
“For me, it is a dream I am going to play the final here in the biggest center court of the world,” Nadal said. “I try my best so after a lot of work so I am very happy for that.”
Playing progressively stronger with each passing round, Nadal has kicked his game into a higher gear like a sprinter downshifting into speedier strides with the tape in sight as he is now one win removed from becoming the seventh man in history to complete the career Grand Slam.
Continuing his quest to become the first man since Rod Laver in 1969 to win Roland Garros, Wimbledon and the US Open in succession, Nadal has not surrendered a set in six tournament victories and now the world watches and waits for a potential electrifying encounter in tomorrow’s final.
If five-time champion Roger Federer defeats Novak Djokovic for the fourth consecutive time at the Open in today’s second semifinal then the archrivals will face off in their first Flushing Meadows final. It would be their 18th meeting in a championship match, second to Ivan Lendl and John McEnroe, who met in 20 finals.
Nadal and Federer have split the spoils at the Grand Slam table in combining to claim 21 of the last 24 major championships.
It would be a historic match-up marking the first time in history two men squared off in all four Grand Slam tournament finals. A Federer-Nadal final would be their eighth Grand Slam title match, setting the record for most major meetings (they currently share the record of seven major final face-offs with Bill Tilden and William Johnston, who met in seven straight US Championships from 1919-1925.).
Seeking to become the first Russian man to reach a major final since Marat Safin at the 2005 Australian Open and the second Russian finalist in Flushing Meadow after Safin, who stunned Pete Sampras to capture the title a decade ago, Youzhny need to play big and bold, but instead looked tired and timid for long stretches of the match.
Youzhny punctuated a few of his errant shots by tapping his adidas with the rim of racquet as if trying to shake some sense into his shot selection through flogging his feet.
“Maybe he was a little bit more tired than me; he played a longer match during the week,” Nadal said.
Depleted by his 3-6, 7-6(7-), 3-6, 6-3, 6-3 victory over 25th-seeded Swiss Stanislas Wawrinka that spanned exactly four hours, a spent Youzhny looked like a man fully aware he had little left in his inner reservoir. The clarity Youzhny showed in his shot selection against Wawrinka was missing at times today. Nadal’s fast feet and ability to track down balls that elude most mortals caused Youzhny to think before he struck at times and he conceded that the mind-body connection was a bit out of sync.
“I cannot say I’m really tired, but yeah, (I) was not fast enough today,” Youzhny said. “My decision was not really fast. I mean, I (was) moving well, but my head was one step back of my hand and my legs. So that’s why I was thinking too long where I have to play. That’s why some mistakes and that’s why made the score like this one.”
Nadal has a habit of infiltrating opponent’s heads with his anticipation, unerring consistency and court coverage that seems to squeeze the court to the size of a parking space.
“He’s consistent. He play really high level all year,” Youzhny said of Nadal. “Not everybody can play like this. Some players play really well maybe three tournaments and four, five tournaments play not so well. Even top players. But Federer and Nadal I think (are) more consistent players. His level is a little bit higher than all other players.”
Read more of Rich Pagliaro at TennisNow.com.