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Rafael Nadal forced to retire from US Open semi-final with knee injury

The Guardian logo The Guardian 08/09/2018 Kevin Mitchell Flushing Meadows
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Juan Martín del Potro returns to contest the final of the US Open on Sunday nine years after winning the title, but he did not enjoy the manner of his victory over Rafael Nadal, who had to quit during a grand slam match for the third time in his career.

“It’s not the best way to win,” the popular Argentinian said after winning the only two sets, 7-6 (3), 6-2.

Hobbling on one good leg, the 32-year-old defending champion had already left the court for the locker room, where he received quick treatment on the knee injury that cut him down at the end of a long and arduous campaign, then explained to the media that he was in too much pain to continue.

NEW YORK, NY - SEPTEMBER 07:  Rafael Nadal of Spain checks his racket during his men's singles semi-final match against Juan Martin del Potro of Argentina on Day Twelve of the 2018 US Open at the USTA Billie Jean King National Tennis Center on September 7, 2018 in the Flushing neighborhood of the Queens borough of New York City.  (Photo by Al Bello/Getty Images) © Getty NEW YORK, NY - SEPTEMBER 07: Rafael Nadal of Spain checks his racket during his men's singles semi-final match against Juan Martin del Potro of Argentina on Day Twelve of the 2018 US Open at the USTA Billie Jean King National Tennis Center on September 7, 2018 in the Flushing neighborhood of the Queens borough of New York City. (Photo by Al Bello/Getty Images)

Nadal had already figured in the two longest matches of the tournament – over four hours and 49 minutes against Dominic Thiem in the quarter-finals, and four hours and 23 minutes beating Karen Khachanov in round three – and it was obvious the workload had taken its toll on a player who has been plagued by injury throughout his career.

Del Potro added courtside: “I love to play against Rafa because he is the biggest fighter in the sport and I don’t like to see him suffer like he did today. But I am also so happy to be in the final again. The key to the match was the first set. It was a really tough one and I did well in the tie-break, served well.”

Juan Martin del Potro, of Argentina, reacts after winning a point against Rafael Nadal, of Spain, during the semifinals of the U.S. Open tennis tournament, Friday, Sept. 7, 2018, in New York. (AP Photo/Seth Wenig) © AP Juan Martin del Potro, of Argentina, reacts after winning a point against Rafael Nadal, of Spain, during the semifinals of the U.S. Open tennis tournament, Friday, Sept. 7, 2018, in New York. (AP Photo/Seth Wenig)

The winner understood better than most the quandary that faced Nadal, having been unable to defend his title here in 2010 and then drifting into the wilderness for years as he sought a solution to persistent wrist problems that threatened to end his career.

“It means a lot to me,” he said of his return. “I didn’t expect to get in another grand slam final, and in my favourite tournament, in New York at the US Open. My biggest memories are on this court when I beat Rafa than Roger [Federer] – but I was a kid. Now I am nine years older, of course.”

Rafael Nadal, of Spain, talks with chair umpire James Keothavong during a match against Juan Martin del Potro, of Argentina, during the semifinals of the U.S. Open tennis tournament, Friday, Sept. 7, 2018, in New York. (AP Photo/Seth Wenig) © AP Rafael Nadal, of Spain, talks with chair umpire James Keothavong during a match against Juan Martin del Potro, of Argentina, during the semifinals of the U.S. Open tennis tournament, Friday, Sept. 7, 2018, in New York. (AP Photo/Seth Wenig)

Nadal said later: “I had some issues during the tournament. In the second or third match, then I think it was a little bit better. But at two-all and 15-love in the first set I felt something on the knee. After that I was just trying to wait for some improvement.

“But it did not happen today. I waited as much as I could. You could imagine, it was very difficult for me to say goodbye before the finish. But at some point I had to make a decision. But it was so difficult for me, so much pain. It was not a tennis match at the end, one player playing, and the other just staying at the other end.”

When they met here last year, Nadal, on average, stood more than 12 feet behind the baseline to receive, and he stuck to that formula again, his racket poised to switch from slice to the top spin of his formidable forehand. Del Potro hugged the line then, and again on Friday.

Nerves rattled as they exchanged breaks twice in the first set, before Del Potro properly imposed himself in the shootout. From there to the end, it became increasingly obvious in nearly every exchange that it was no long an even fight.

Nadal needed more attention to his throbbing knee after three games, and it clearly was hurting as he twisted and turned to counter Del Potro’s fierce forehand. Carlos Moya looked on anxiously from the player’s box, knowing the end was not far away.

Gallery: Rafael Nadal retires from US Open semifinal against Juan Martin del Potro (USA Today)


Patched up, Nadal resumed battle, his kneecap bulging above the tape. On the changeover and a set and 1-4 down, he gave Moya a resigned look, but finished the set.

Eight times he has had to retire during a match – twice at the Australian Open, against David Ferrer in 2011 and most recently in the fifth set against Marin Cilic in the quarters this year, when his hip gave up on him, as well as withdrawing from the French Open after two quick wins in 2016, when a wrist injury also forced him to miss Wimbledon.

“I guess there comes a point when the body needs rest at some point along the line,” Jimmy Connors said, adding to the debate ignited here about whether slams should introduce best-of-three matches in the early rounds. There are passionate advocates on both sides of the argument.

Connors, who played for more than 20 years and was No 1 in the world for 160 weeks in a row, added: “His game seems to be so much more physical than other players.”

For how much longer is now the central debate he must have with Moya and his advisers.

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