| By Brian Coleman

Entering Wednesday’s men’s singles quarterfinals at the U.S. Open, tennis fans were just two wins away from one of the most anticipated and long-awaited matches in the tournament’s history, as Rafael Nadal and Roger Federer’s Flushing Meadows collision course was almost complete.

The longtime rivalry between the Swiss and the Spaniard has spanned 37 matches which includes 12 meetings at Grand Slams, but never once had the two faced off in New York. It was set to happen on Friday night in the biggest tennis stadium in the world, as long as Nadal could beat Andrey Rublev and Federer could beat Juan Martin del Potro on Wednesday.

Nadal easily took care of business earlier in the day, routing the 19-year old Rublev 6-1, 6-2, 6-2 in just one hour and 37 minutes.

“[I’m] happy the way I played today, and let’s see what’s going to happen tonight and let’s see which opponent I have in the semifinals,” Nadal said after his win.

So it was up to Federer to complete the other half of the deal. He was coming off back-to-back straight-sets victories, while del Potro was just coming off the mat after winning the match of the tournament, his thrilling five-set comeback against Dominic Thiem. It seemed, physically, like Federer should have no problems with the Argentine.

But there is just something about del Potro in New York. In a rarity, Federer was not the overwhelming crowd favorite, and del Potro fed off the support, denying the juicy Federer-Nadal matchup with a 7-5, 3-6, 7-6(8), 6-4 upset.

His huge forehand, which blasted him past Federer in the U.S. Open final eight years ago, was on display again; and the more he hit it, the louder his supporters got.

“It’s amazing to see the crowd like this,” Del Potro said afterwards. “Against Federer it’s not easy to show the fans love. You know, he’s local around the world, around every tournament. Tonight, people wanted to see a great tennis match.

To me, it’s great after all my wrist problems, come back and see how much love from the fans comes to me is great.”

The 38th matchup, and the first at the U.S. Open, between Nadal and Federer was not to be in 2017, and will now most likely never happen.

Something seemed off about Federer on Wednesday night. He had four set points in that fourth-set tiebreaker but was unable to play his best tennis in the biggest moments, an oddity for arguably the greatest player in the sport’s history.

“I think the decisions that we both took, me serving, him returning, or whatever it may have been, you know, it just didn’t go my way,” he said. “He came up with the goods when he needed to and I helped him a little bit sometimes too.  But he was better today, especially on the big points.”

While there is clear disappointment that we won’t get to see Federer vs. Nadal under the lights of Arthur Ashe Stadium, the semifinal we get instead is more than just a consolation prize. A rematch of the semifinals in 2009, where del Potro won 6-2, 6-2, 6-2, the Argentine and the Spaniard will square off for the 14th time on Friday.

“Physically, I’m not in the perfect conditions, but when you play semifinals in Grand Slam, everything can happen,” Del Potro said. “So you must be ready for the chance and playing against Rafa in my favorite tournament, I will try to enjoy the atmosphere, the game, and I know if I play my best tennis, I could be a danger for him.”


Photo courtesy of Phil Feingold

Whoever does come out on top will be the clear favorite to win the title and will play the victor of the other semifinal, Kevin Anderson vs. Pablo Carreno Busta, in Sunday’s final. 

Brian Coleman

 Brian Coleman is the Senior Editor for New York Tennis Magazine. He may be reached at brianc@usptennis.com