Rafael Nadal had to fight like a junkyard dog in the longest match of the week to shake off the determined challenge of the young Russian prospect, Karen Khachanov, and his chances of retaining the US Open title might need some reassessment.
Looking serene and commanding all the way to the third round, the Spaniard was forced to grind for a flawed 5-7, 6-5, 7-6 (7), 7-6 (3) win on Arthur Ashe Stadium that took him fours and 23 minutes. The latter part of that was played out under the roof when rain arrived to soothe reddened brows across a venue that has been slowly sizzling since day one.
“I don’t think the roof had any impact on the match,” he said courtside. “He is a great opponent, and it was a tough situation. There are things to work on for the next round.”
Nadal had to scrap for nearly every point, soaked up 22 aces without reply and endured the indignity of being broken to love when he first served for the match. He blew too many chances to be totally convincing, and he got the job done almost despite himself. Several times he went to the last tick of the shot clock, to add suspense to the drama.
He can rest until Sunday, when he plays the unseeded Georgian Nikoloz Basilashvili, who earlier had a mid-match crash before outlasting the Argentinian Guido Pella, 6-3, 6-4, 1-6, 7-6 (4) in two hours and 46 minutes.
Nadal, broken early before he found a reliable rhythm, saved three set points in a tense 12th game but, after 55 minutes of high-grade rallying from deep, Khachanov clipped the corner of the deuce box and drilled his eighth ace past the Spaniard’s outstretched racket at 129mph.
What began as a minor setback morphed into a crisis when Nadal traded breaks at the start of the second set then, after saving two break points, butchered an easy forehand to hand his disbelieving opponent a 5-4 lead.
Khachanov, who had already struck 11 aces and 21 unreturned serves at an efficiency rate of 79%, was within two points of a two-set advantage against the world No 1 but Nadal got hold of his third break opportunity with venom, mid-court, and forced a weak response from the baseline that put him back on level terms.
During the break, Nadal had had his right knee strapped, just under the knee-cap, an area that has intermittently made his life a misery in 17 years on the tour.
Then, towards the end of a fiercely hot first week, the unexpected: cooling rain. After two hours of a tense and engaging contest, enough drizzle hit the playing area in this extraordinary cement shell to persuade the officials to draw the roof across for the second time on day five. The players were off the court for maybe six minutes; night owls in the UK will be aware that Prime was off the air for a little longer, missing the resumption.
Nadal held without fuss, and Khachanov hit a dreadful double-fault (his fourth of the match) on game point. When Nadal drove a crisp forehand down the unprotected ad line for set point, Khachanov looked forlorn – and even sadder when his backhand volley in the subsequent deciding exchange drifted slowly long. Nadal called for the trainer again, for more strapping on his knee.
They each had scored exactly 80 points, with a set apiece, in two hours and 10 minutes, but it did not feel like parity. The steam had temporarily leaked from the Russian’s engine, and Nadal was brought sharply back to life in the third, where the battle remained at a grueling level.
Both had their chances before they reached the tie-break and it was there that Nadal again showed nerves, wasting four set points before forcing one last mistake from Khachanov’s racket in a 39-shot rally after nearly three and a half hours.
Despite having to go to the limits of his stamina and effort – as they entered the deciding set, the defending champion had not hit a single ace in reply to Khachanov’s 18 – Nadal, 10 years older, looked the more likely winner – until broken to love when serving for the match. Within 10 minutes he had to save set point to force the tie-break. He could not have looked much more relieved when it was over.