World no. 2 Rafael Nadal was one of the players to beat when the US Open draw came out, using the favorable line-up and having a clear path at least towards the semi-final. The Spaniard won the title in New York in 2017 and lost in the semi-final last year after retiring against Juan Martin del Potro, hoping for a better run this week.
Playing on a high level, Nadal lost one set in five encounters to advance into the 28th Grand Slam final and the fifth at the US Open, seeking the 19th Major crown against Daniil Medvedev on Sunday. Defending his serve nicely and dominating on the return as well, Rafa got broken only six times from 16 chances offered to the rivals, skipping the second round when Thanasi Kokkinakis withdrew and facing no break points in two clashes against Hyeon Chung and Matteo Berrettini in the semis.
Nadal's return game has been working like a charm so far as well, taking no less than 40% of the points against the rivals' serve and controlling the scoreboard almost all the time. In the opening round, Nadal took down John Millman 6-3, 6-2, 6-2 in two hours and seven minutes, giving no chance to the last year's quarter-finalist after producing rock-solid tennis from start to finish to leave the Aussie behind and sail into the second round.
Rafa repelled all three break points he faced and John was nowhere near those numbers, getting broken five times from 15 chances offered to the rival, unable to match Nadal's pace from the baseline or to impose his shots in the rallies.
The Spaniard repelled a break point in the first game of the match with a service winner and moved in front with a break in game four when Millman's forehand landed long, settling into a nice rhythm and wasting a couple of chances on the return at 4-1 that could have pushed him further in front.
Serving for the opener at 5-3, Rafa held at 15 to grab the set in 41 minutes, looking good on the court and hoping for more of the same in sets two and three as well. After four good holds on both sides in the second set, Nadal shifted into a higher gear and broke in the fifth game after a powerful forehand attack that John couldn't control, opening the lead and moving 5-2 up with another break when Millman netted a forehand.
Rafa saved two break chances in the next game with service winners and clinched the set with an ace for a 6-3, 6-2 after 85 minutes. John gave serve away at the beginning of the third set when Rafa converted the sixth break point, cementing the advantage with an ace in game two and earning another break to forge a 3-0 lead.
Serving for the victory at 5-2, Nadal sealed the deal with a forehand down the line winner to secure the spot in the second round, pleased with the way he competed in the opening clash. Thanasi Kokkinakis wasn't ready to play against Rafa in round two, facing another player born in 1996 Hyeon Chung in the battle for the fourth round.
Competing in his 81st encounter at the US Open, Nadal scored the 60th victory in New York, defeating Chung 6-3, 6-4, 6-2 in an hour and 58 minutes. It was another rock-solid performance from the Spaniard who struggled to find the first serve but drew the most from it, dropping only 15 points in his games and never facing a break point to mount the pressure on Chung who couldn't endure it after spending seven hours on the court in the previous two rounds.
The Korean gave his best to stay in touch with the mighty opponent in the shortest and mid-range exchanges but stood no chance against Rafa in the longer rallies, unable to move the opponent away from the comfort zone and spraying almost 40 unforced errors.
Rafa tamed his shots nicely with 28 winners and 26 mistakes, taking 40% of the return points and delivering four breaks from eight opportunities to race towards the finish line and advance into the last 16 for the 11th time.
The first set lasted for more than 40 minutes and Nadal had some time to find his shots, not going for too many risky shots and crumbling the rival with steady pace in the more extended rallies. He broke Chung in the sixth game when the Korean sent a backhand long, closing the opener with an ace in game nine for a 6-3.
The Spaniard lost five points behind the initial shot in set number two, sailing through his games and breaking Chung at 2-2 with a forehand down the line winner, moving in front and wrapping up the set after another great hold in game ten when Hyeon sent a forehand long.
Things looked very bright for Rafa in set number three as well, dropping three points in his games and stealing the opponent's serve in games three and seven before sealing the deal with a forehand winner in game eight to stay on the title course, facing John Isner or Marin Cilic in the next round.
There, Nadal toppled a former champion Marin Cilic 6-3, 3-6, 6-1, 6-2 in two hours and 49 minutes for the ninth quarter-final in New York. The winner from 2014 managed to take away a set from Rafa but the Spaniard's triumph was never in doubt, delivering great tennis on both serve and return for the seventh win over Marin in nine encounters, celebrating the 268th Grand Slam victory.
Despite losing a set, Nadal controlled the pace of the encounter all the time, recovering instantly to topple Marin in sets three and four and bring the win home, hitting 37 winners and 26 unforced errors with two breaks suffered.
As it turned out, Marin needed more than that to stay in touch, losing serve six times and not being able to match the rival's pace in sets three and four, ending his run in the fourth round. Rafa broke first in the fourth game after a forehand error from Marin who broke back in the next game with a deep return to get back on the positive side of the scoreboard.
For the third game in a row, the server got broken at 15 after an incredible defense from Nadal who kept the advantage until the end with two great holds, moving 6-3 up with a service winner in game nine after 36 minutes.
They both played on a high level in set number two and it was Cilic who delivered a whole package, serving well and breaking Rafa at 15 in the fourth game that sent him in front, sealing the set with an unreturned serve at 5-3 to level the overall score and stay in contention for an upset.
Nadal had other plans, though, dropping five points on serve in the third set and breaking Marin twice in a row for a commanding 6-1 in no time at all. Cilic couldn't stay on the level from the previous set, suffering a break at love with a double fault in game four and giving serve away next time around as well to send Rafa 5-1 up after a forehand down the line winner from the Spaniard who held with a service winner a few minutes later to move two sets to one up after two hours and gain a massive boost.
The pressure was on Cilic who couldn't deal with it, losing serve twice at the beginning of the fourth set to hand the victory to his opponent. Nadal broke in the first game of the set after another costly double fault from the Croat, earning another return game at 2-0 to forge an even bigger advantage and moving over the top with a forehand winner in game eight to propel himself into the last eight.
There, Diego Schwartzman made him run for his money, with Rafa prevailing 6-4, 7-5, 6-2 in two hours and 46 minutes for the third consecutive US Open semi-final. This is the 33rd Major semi-final for the Spaniard overall, the seventh consecutive since Roland Garros 2017 in what has been his best Grand Slam streak despite turning 33 in June.
Nadal grabbed the eighth victory over Diego in as many matches but it took a lot from him to emerge at the top, battling with an inspired rival and the humidity to prevail in straight sets and book the semi-final meeting with Matteo Berrettini on Friday, standing as the strong favorite in that one as well.
The Spaniard played on a high level in the first three encounters here in New York, heading into this clash after two almost perfect sets versus a former champion Marin Cilic although it was a completely different encounter today, with Schwartzman giving his best to trouble the mighty opponent just as he did at the Australian Open and Roland Garros.
Rafa had 35 winners and 39 unforced errors, struggling to find an open space or impose the forehand that let him down on many occasions, fending off six out of ten break chances to reduce the deficit and hope for as many opportunities on the return.
They had to came against Diego who lost almost half of the points behind the initial shot, giving serve away seven times after spraying nearly 40 unforced errors, staying on less than 30 winners and having to settle with the quarter-final run.
It was a grueling battle right from the start, with Nadal making a strong start that pushed him 4-0 up before Schwartzman climbed back, finding his range and taking 17 of the next 21 points to level the score at 4-4 and create two more break chances in game nine that could have sent him in front.
With no room for errors, Nadal repelled both and grabbed a break in the next game for a 6-4 in just under an hour when Diego netted a straightforward backhand. Rafa was the player to beat in the first six games of the second set, playing better than in the opener and forging a 5-1 lead with breaks in games four and six, looking good to bring it home in no time at all and move closer to the finish line.
Instead of that, Schwartzman fought back to secure breaks in games seven and nine, melting the deficit and prolonging the set before Rafa held with an ace to move 6-5 up and stole the rival's serve in game 12 for a 7-5 after almost 70 minutes!
Nadal lost just five points on serve in the third set and Diego couldn't follow that pace, giving serve away in game six after a forced error and propelling Rafa into the semi-final with another break in game eight.
In the battle for the place in the final, Nadal took down Matteo Berrettini 7-6, 6-4, 6-1 in two hours and 34 minutes for the fifth title match at the US Open. Competing in the first Grand Slam semi-final, Matteo gave his best to follow the rival's pace in sets one and two that lasted for more than two hours combined before Nadal found the range in set number three to cross the finish line and stay on the title course, facing Daniil Medvedev in the final on Sunday.
Only the fourth Italian in the Grand Slam semi-final in the Open era, Berrettini fired 37 winners but also 44 unforced errors, some of those in the crucial moments to plague his chances for a more positive result. Also, Nadal lost only 13 points in service games, never facing a break point and controlling the scoreboard once he saved two set points in that challenging opening set that lasted for almost 75 minutes!
Overall, it was another very solid performance from the Spaniard under the closed roof at Arthur Ashe Stadium, wasting six break chances in the opening set including a set point and having to give his best in the tie break where Matteo had the upper hand and a 5-2 and 6-4 advantage.
Winning four straight points, Nadal stole the breaker and the momentum, serving better and better as the match progressed and finally stealing Berrettini's serve in the seventh game of the second set when the youngster netted a backhand slice, closing the set with a hold at love at 5-4 to set the steady course towards the victory.
Berrettini played well up to that point but fell apart in set number three, barely taking a point on the return and suffering three straight breaks of serve, propelling Nadal into the third Major final of the season after a forehand crosscourt winner from the Spaniard in game seven.