NEW YORK – Rafael Nadal was honest as can be before the U.S. Open when asked whether he hoped to face Roger Federer in the semifinals at the only Grand Slam tournament where they’ve never met.
The answer, the No. 1-seeded Nadal said, was no — because he’d rather go up against someone easier to beat.
Well, Nadal did his part to make such a matchup a possibility, overwhelming 19-year-old Russian Andrey Rublev 6-1, 6-2, 6-2 in the quarterfinals at Flushing Meadows on Wednesday. Then Nadal — and the rest of the tennis world — had to wait hours to see whether Federer would hold up his end of the bargain.
That’s because the No. 3-seeded Federer’s quarterfinal against 24th-seeded Juan Martin del Potro in a rematch of the 2009 U.S. Open final was scheduled to be played during the night session.
“I’m going to be having dinner, probably,” Nadal joked about what he’d be doing while Federer played del Potro.
Then Nadal added: “Of course, it’s a match that I want to see.”
The match everyone really wanted to see — with the exception of the 24th-seeded del Potro and his fans, certainly — would be Federer vs. Nadal. And not simply because Federer owns a record 19 Grand Slam men’s singles titles, five at the U.S. Open; Nadal ranks second overall with 15, two in New York.
They offer contrasting styles of play: Federer appears to float around the court at times, while Nadal charges around like the bull that’s etched on the cap he wears after matches.
Nadal called it “something strange” that he’s never played Federer in New York, although they’ve come close in the past. There were five previous occasions when they were a round away from having it happen, but one or the other lost.
The pair has built up a ton of mutual respect. When a reporter asked Nadal what he admires most about Federer on the court and “as a man off the court,” the Spaniard provided a lengthy answer about his rival’s role as an ambassador for their sport and being a great example to kids — although only after trying to lighten the moment by drawing guffaws with this line: “I don’t want to look like I’m going to be his boyfriend, no?”
Their on-court series dates to 2004 and has included 37 meetings (Nadal leads 23-14, although Federer took the past four), with 12 at majors (Nadal leads 9-3). They have played in at least two finals at each of the other three Grand Slam tournaments, most recently at the Australian Open in January.
“It’s the best match that you can have — as a tennis fan, as a spectator. And I believe Rafa is going to be ready if that match has to happen,” said Carlos Moya, the 1998 French Open champion who has been helping coach Nadal alongside Toni Nadal, Rafael’s uncle.
“I know Federer beat him a few times this year,” Moya said, “but it’s always a challenge to play against the best.”
In the women’s quarterfinals, 15th-seeded Madison Keys completed an all-American lineup in the final four with a dominating 6-3, 6-3 victory over 418th-ranked qualifier Kaia Kanepi of Estonia in only 69 minutes Wednesday night. Earlier, No. 20 CoCo Vandeweghe knocked off top-seeded Karolina Pliskova 7-6 (4), 6-3. Keys and Vandeweghe will meet Thursday to determine which reaches her first Grand Slam final.
Venus Williams and Sloane Stephens set up their all-U.S. semifinal with victories Tuesday.
It is the first time since 1981 that all four women’s semifinalists in New York are from the host country.
While Federer entered Wednesday night’s match with a 16-5 head-to-head mark against del Potro, the big-hitting Argentine won his only Grand Slam trophy with a five-set victory in the 2009 title match at Flushing Meadows.
The expectation, certainly, was their quarterfinal this time would be more competitive than Nadal’s stroll past the 53rd-ranked Rublev, which barely lasted more than 1½ hours.
“He gave me a lesson,” acknowledged Rublev, the youngest U.S. Open quarterfinalist since Andy Roddick in 2001.
Rublev didn’t put up much of a fight, with seven double-faults among his 43 unforced errors.
“I will try now to practice harder to improve everything for the next time if we play each other,” Rublev said, “to try to compete better.”
Truth is, the way Nadal is playing at the moment, few would be able to offer much in the way of a challenge.
He has won his past three matches in straight sets, his uppercut of a forehand at its most dangerous best.
“He’s been playing better and better every day,” Moya said. “The last couple of matches have been very good. He is confident. He had a few doubts at the beginning of the tournament that I believe now are gone and he is able to play his best tennis.”