NEW YORK (Reuters) - For the third year in a row, Rafa Nadal is through to the semi-finals of the U.S. Open. The one title he needs to complete his grand slam collection is now tantalizingly close.
Nadal booked his place in the last four by thrashing his fellow Spaniard Fernando Verdasco 7-5 6-3 6-4 on Thursday. The pair are supposedly great friends, so pity Nadal’s enemies.
The world number one has never made it to the final at Flushing Meadows before, more often a victim of the hardcourts than his rivals, but it only seems a matter of time.
The prospect of the ultimate grand slam final is looming larger than ever. Nadal and Roger Federer have already played each other in the finals at Wimbledon, Australia and Paris but never in New York.
The pair still need to win their semi-finals on Saturday but it will take a monumental performance to stop either of them.
“I think that he will play the final against Roger,” Verdasco said. “It’s gonna be a tough match, because I think Roger plays really good in these conditions. It’s gonna be a very tough final for Rafa if he plays against Roger.”
Nadal’s next opponent is Russia’s Mikhail Youzhny, the only player left in the men’s draw not ranked in the top three. The 12th seed earned his place in the semis the hard way, beating Stanislas Wawrinka of Switzerland 3-6 7-6 3-6 6-3 6-3 on Thursday.
By any measure, it was an impressive and brave performance, but at what price? Youzhny spent four hours slugging it out on the center court when the swirling winds were at their strongest and was exhausted by the end.
Youzhny did beat Nadal to make the semi-finals at Flushing Meadows four years ago but the 24-year-old Spaniard is stronger, wiser and infinitely more popular now. The Russian knows he will not have many friends if he finds a way to ruin the prospect of a first Nadal-Federer showdown in the Big Apple.
“I’m ready to be bad person,” Youzhny said. “I love to be bad person in this case.”
Nadal needed less than two and a half hours to see off Verdasco, who was unable to muster the energy to repeat his incredible five-set win over David Ferrer in the quarter-finals.
They played under lights in the cool evening air with Nadal, dressed again in the all black outfit he has chosen for this year’s championship, cutting a menacing figure when he strolled on to court.
In the initial skirmishes, he was in a mood almost as dark as his clothing, and it showed in his game as the wind picked up and made life hard for both men.
When he dropped his service game, the crowd at Arthur Ashe Stadium instantly fell into a hush. They knew as well as Nadal that it was the first time in the entire tournament that the lefthander had been broken.
For the briefest of moments, an upset seemed possible, but they need not have worried. Nadal began to pile on the pressure and Verdaco, despite being seeded eighth, could not hold him out.
When Nadal pinched the opening set, the result was a foregone conclusion and he ran away with the next two to charge into the semis without losing a set or another service game and performing an impromptu pirouette to win a point at the net.
“I think I’ve played every day better,” Nadal said. “I played a great match against very difficult opponent like Fernando.
“For me, to be in the semi-finals is amazing but I have to keep going and keep playing better if I really want to have chances to be in the final.”
Wawrinka, best known as Federer’s partner in the Swiss men’s doubles team that won the gold medal at the Beijing Olympics, had been one of the revelations of the tournament, upsetting fourth seed Andy Murray in the third round then winning a four and a half hour five-setter against Sam Querrey in the round of 16.
But the combination of fatigue and a niggling leg injury eventually wore him down and he was virtually powerless to stop Youzhny winning the last two sets.
“I think I gave everything today,” Wawrinka said. “But if I go back, I’m very pleased with the tournament.”
The first title of the championships was decided on Thursday when Bob Bryan and Liezel Huber teamed up to win the mixed doubles final, 6-4 6-4 over Aisam-ul-Haq Qureshi and Kveta Peschke.
Bob will partner his twin brother Mike in Friday’s men’s doubles title against Quershi, a Pakistani who took up the game to get out of doing his homework, and India’s Rohan Bopanna.
The women’s singles semi-finals will also be held on Friday with top seed Caroline Wozniacki facing Vera Zvonareva in the first match before Venus Williams and the defending champion Kim Clijsters renew their decade long rivalry in the second.
Editing by John O'Brien