Rafael Nadal today moved one step closer to setting up a blockbuster US Open semi-final clash with Roger Federer, claiming an effortless 6-2, 6-4, 6-1 victory over Alexandr Dolgopolov and a spot in the last eight of the tournament for the first time in four years.
Nadal has had a spotty record at hard court slams since winning the title at Flushing Meadows four years back, which made his sublime return to form on the surface at the Australian Open in January all the more surprising. As the memories of the US Open’s first week fade into the rear-view mirror, Nadal treated us to the most devastating performance yet seen in the men’s singles event and perhaps his best on hard since he reached the final in Melbourne. To put it lightly, this match was one-way traffic throughout, nothing less than a comprehensive and unmitigated rout.
Both players held at the start of the first set, each taking one return game to size the other up in this their first match since summer 2015. Nadal forged ahead early when he broke to 30 in the Ukranian’s second service game. Now cushioned by a 3-1 lead, Nadal settled into a consistent baseline rhythm while his opponent sabotaged himself by making incomprehensible errors on elementary shots. Despite being briefly pressured when he squandered three game points in the fifth game, Nadal stretched his lead to three games after Dolgopolov sent another one of his groundies flying beyond the baseline.
Dolgopolov received a brief respite in the following game, which he held to love courtesy of an ace. Nadal then faced a new set of difficulties serving at 4-2 when he double faulted at 30-30 to put himself break point down. He held off that break chance courtesy of a forehand thunderbolt and saved another on the following point. The world number one escaped from the seventh game unscathed and let loose in the next, as he broke Dolgopolov to take the first set 6-2.
The second set went with serve for the first eight games, and it looked as if Dolgopolov had finally found a happy medium between going for broke and waiting too long to pull the trigger. His first serves started landing on the targets he wanted them to and the rallies, which were being decided increasingly often by the world No.64’s winners, shortened in length.
This brief period of equanimity that might have lulled Dolgopolov into thinking he was gaining a foothold in the match ended when he was serving to stay alive in the set. Nadal dispelled any of those hopes with a massive second serve return on his second set point. Dolgopolov sent a labored reply into the net. Retreating to his chair, he looked up at a scoreboard that read 6-2, 6-4 in Nadal’s favor. If there were any doubts in his mind that the match was close to over, they were no longer present now.
As one would expect, the floodgates opened in the third set. It’s interesting to think how Dolgopolov has on occasion proved to be a thorn in Nadal’s side; on better days, he could be a prolific perturbator, the type who gives the Spanish Bull fits with a game based on an unorthodox mix of spin, slice and raw power. Not today. As Dolgopolov’s errors piled up, so did the odds against him staging a comeback from two sets to love down.
And boy, did the beatdown happen in record quick time. In a matter of minutes, Nadal broke in the first game, held in the second, broke again in the third, held again in the fourth… the only question that came to mind was, which bakery product would he force-feed his opponent? Dolgoplov saved face with a service hold in the fifth game to ensure that it wouldn’t be a bagel. In the end, his fate wasn’t much better. He discovered that a breadstick was to be the cuisine du jour when Nadal broke him again at 5-1 on his fifth match point.
With his 20th Grand Slam victory of the year, Nadal marches on into the quarter-finals of the 2017 US Open, where he will be tasked with taking down Andrey Rublev, the 53rd-ranked Russian teenager who grew up idolizing the Mallorcan as a junior. This will be a first meeting between the two players, and Rublev’s maiden opportunity to play in the last eight of a major tournament. Nadal is heavily favored to win that clash, but in order to avoid that outcome, Rublev will need to cast aside his feelings of star-struck obeisance. It will be all business out there on Wednesday.
Keep abreast with the 2017 US Open here on Tennis-Pulse.com as the quarter-final round approaches.