Both players staggered off of the court sometime after 2:00 a.m. in New York City; one a victor, one a loser.
The victor, Rafael Nadal, had been on this stage before. An early-morning battle inside Arthur Ashe Stadium that raged on for nearly five hours, and in the end was won by Nadal 0-6, 6-4, 7-5, 6-7(4), 7-6(5) to reach the U.S. Open semifinals.
“What is important about this match is the level of tennis, the dramatic match,” said Nadal. “When things happen like this, the atmosphere and the crowd become more special. People get involved. Yeah, a great match and great atmosphere there. Happy to be part of it.”
It was Thiem who struck first on Tuesday night as the two competitors battled for the 11th time, but the first time on a hard court. The ninth-seeded Austrian delivered a near-perfect first set to hand Nadal a “bagel”, hitting 13 winners to just two unforced errors to win the opener in 25 minutes.
“I started of course really fast. That’s what I was hoping to do, as well. That’s what I was preparing for,” said Thiem. “But I think he was also not on his top level in the first set, for sure not. Normally he doesn’t lose against nobody 6-0. But still it was great. Of course, my level dropped a little bit. Besides this first set, it was just an open and great game.”
Nadal did raise his level in the second set and Thiem’s dropped just enough with Nadal breaking twice to level the match.
In the third, Thiem had a chance to serve for the set at 5-3, but Nadal, the top-seed and defending champion, rattled off four consecutive games to steal the third set and move within one set of the victory.
Although he relinquished his break advantage in the fourth set, Thiem played dominant tennis in the tiebreaker to win the fourth set and left the semifinal spot to be determined by a deciding fifth set.
Thiem was dominant on serve in the set, and Nadal as gritty as ever, saving five break points in the decider as the match, fittingly, would come down to a tiebreak.
At 6-5 in the tiebreak, Nadal watched as Thiem’s smash landed beyond the baseline and brought an end to the four hour and 48 minute match, an instant U.S. Open classic.
“Yeah, it’s going to be stuck in my mind forever. Forever I’m going to remember this match, for sure,” said a dejected Thiem afterwards. “It’s cruel sometimes, tennis, because I think this match didn’t really deserve a loser. But there has to be one.”
Nadal is now into the U.S. Open semifinals for the seventh time in his career, and awaiting him is third-seed and 2009 champion Juan Martin del Potro, who defeated American John Isner in four sets earlier in the day.
“[It] will be a big challenge. It’s a match that we know each other very well. I know he’s playing well. I know that I will have to play at my highest level to keep having chances of success. I am focused to make that happen,” said Nadal. “I think the last three sets I improved. I increased my level. Was a step forward for me in the dynamic of the tournament. So I did it. I hope to continue that way.”
Brian Coleman is the Senior Editor for New York Tennis Magazine. He may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org