Rafael Nadal reached his fifth US Open final – and third grand slam final of the year – beating the big-serving Italian Matteo Berrettini in straight sets on Friday night. He will now start as favourite on Sunday against the game’s latest “bad boy”, Daniil Medvedev, to draw within one major of Roger Federer’s record of 20.
It took the 33-year-old Spaniard two hours and 34 minutes to humble Berrettini, 7-6, 6-4, 6-1, which probably was the examination he needed to prepare for Medvedev, the fifth seed who beat Grigor Dimitrov 7-6, 6-4, 6-3.
“The first set was frustrating with all the break points … and I was a little bit lucky in the tiebreak,” said Nadal in a post-match interview. “After that the match changed and I am super happy to be back in the final of the US Open. He is young. He has everything. He is already a great player, one of the best in the world.”
As for Medvedev, whom he beat 6-3, 6-0 to win this year’s Montreal final in their only career meeting, he said, “He’s one of the most solid players on Tour, having an amazing summer. I need to be at my best. It means a lot for me to be back after some tough moments early in the season.”
Nadal, injury free, has been on fire all tournament and Berrettini, who had spent five hours and 40 minutes longer on court than him over the fortnight, needed a pair of aces to survive two break points in the first game of the match. The bustling Spaniard held without fuss in quick time. It was not a mismatch, but there was unease among the 24,000 paying customers that they might not get five sets out of these guys.
“Everyone’s assuming Rafa’s going to win this easy,” John McEnroe said of the 18-1 odds available on Berretini, a first-time slam semi-finalist.
Berrettini’s big serve was cutting through the cool night air at up to 133mph, and he struck the first of nine aces in getting on the board.
The bookies might have been teasing the punters, but the gulf in experience was obvious. The 23-year-old Berretini was only the second Italian since Corrado Barazzutti in 1977 to go this deep here. The 66-year-old former world No7 and current captain of Italy’s Davis Cup and Fed Cup teams was in the stadium, as were a fair number of the city’s Italians, watching their young hero do his best against one of the game’s finest players. They no doubt were proud of his efforts.
Berrettini has had an excellent season, winning two ATP titles, and arrived in New York ranked 25 in the world. He had nothing to lose, and played like it.
He continued hitting big winners and stayed in the fight with a sprinkling of aces, holding to love to force the tiebreak, where the Nadal went 0-4 down and was relieved to see a lob go long for 3-5. Berrettini, playing without fear, drew Nadal to the net and patted the winner into an empty court for two set points. But he netted a backhand, failed to challenge a Nadal serve that was long and butchered a drop shot.
Nadal outlasted him in a 23-shot rally, the longest of the match to that stage, for set point, and fist-pumped with glee when Berrettini hit long. It took him an hour and 13 minutes to get ahead of the Roman, the last 13 of them in the shootout.
Berrettini was making him sweat, but the cracks widened in the second set. Time and again, he struggled to hold and the aces arrived less frequently, although his resistance was stubborn. Nadal cashed in on his 10th break chance to go 4-3 up, however, and, from there to the end, the inevitability of Berrettini’s predicament slowly crowded in on him. Nadal served out to love for a two-set lead in a little over two hours.
Nadal is one of the most polite players on the Tour but, when he drilled a volley at Berrettini to get to deuce in the first game of the third, then break, he betrayed his innate ruthlessness. The Italian, trapped at the net, parried the ball away and did not look best pleased.
Nadal was in total control now, cruising through the points to go 4-1 up in just over 20 minutes. A stunning, 360-degree swivelling backhand that clipped the line in the opposite corner left Berrettini gasping in awe and frustration as Nadal served out to love again for 5-1. Berrettini’s racket looked as heavy as a brick as a forehand dribbled into the net, although he found a final ace, as he ended a tournament he will leave with lots of fond memories, despite his losing struggle here.
A double fault, Berrettini’s second, handed Nadal match point, and the Spaniard struck the white line again with a ripped crosscourt forehand to wrap it up.