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Nadal outlasts Thiem in marathon match

Nadal hitting a return to Thiem during their men's singles quarterfinal match at the USTA Billie Jean King National Tennis Center.

New York

KNOWN for his torquing topspin and forceful forehand, Rafael Nadal showed off a different, metaphoric skill late on Tuesday night at the US Open: digestion.

After being force-fed a "bagel" set of 6-0 by ninth-seeded Dominic Thiem to open their quarterfinal match, Nadal seemed to gain a boost from the rough start, as if he had been intentionally carbo-loading his side of the scoreboard.

He would need the energy to endure the thick humidity in Arthur Ashe Stadium through the night, as the quick start gave way to a prolonged battle, becoming the longest match of the tournament so far.

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After absorbing a 24-minute bludgeoning in the first set, Nadal came back to win 0-6, 6-4, 7-5, 6-7(4), 7-6(5) in four hours, 49 minutes to reach the semifinals.

It was the longest match of the 69 that Nadal has played at the US Open. Nadal had also played the second-longest match of this year's tournament: his four-set win over Karen Khachanov in the third round, which lasted four hours, 23 minutes.

Nadal has played a total of 15 hours, 54 minutes through five matches here.

"It has been an amazing feeling: I am playing a lot of hours this year on this beautiful stadium," he said with a smile in his on-court interview. "That not bothers me - just bothers my legs."

Nadal will next face Juan Martín del Potro on Friday, a rematch of their semifinal here last year, as well as a semifinal this year at the French Open and a quarterfinal at Wimbledon. All of those meetings were won by Nadal.

Del Potro booked his spot in the semifinals with a four-set win over John Isner, the last American man remaining, earlier on Tuesday.

Nadal, a three-time US Open champion, had lost to Thiem in the quarterfinals of the Madrid Open in May, but pummelled him in a lopsided French Open final in June. The two had played 10 times, but all previous meetings came on the clay courts preferred by both.

Thiem, an Austrian who was in the quarterfinals of the US Open for the first time, blitzed Nadal at the onset of the match, hitting 13 winners in the opening set and just two unforced errors.

"That's what I was preparing for," Thiem said. "But I think he was also not on his top level in the first set - for sure not. Normally he doesn't lose against nobody 6-0. But still, it was great. Of course, my level dropped a little bit. Besides this first set, it was just an open and great game."

More than most at the top of men's tennis, Thiem's tactic rarely shifts from its core: a barrelling barrage of baseline bashing.

Early on, Nadal had no answer to Thiem's attack. "'Wake up,'" Nadal said he told himself. "It was a very tough start. The only thing that I was thinking was to finish this first set and forget about this start."

After offering little resistance in the first set, in which he won just seven points, the more versatile Nadal adjusted. While both players stand close to the wall to return serve, estranged from the blue interior of the court, Nadal proved more successful coming forward in the middle stages of the match, and more successful at drawing Thiem forward.

Thiem did not relent, however, and kept hammering away from the baseline to earn a chance to serve for the third set up 5-4.

But Nadal drew him to net twice more, drawing a backhand error on break point to level the set. Nadal then broke again to take the set 7-5.

Nadal's play typically leaned on his forehand, which produced 29 winners compared with nine from his backhand. Thiem's winning shots were more balanced: 23 from his forehand, 24 from his backhand.

After winning the fourth in a tiebreaker, this time drawing an error from Nadal at the net, Thiem found his bearings in the forecourt in the final set, winning seven of his first eight forays forward.

The ninth, however, proved costly: on Nadal's first match point, at 6-5 in the tiebreaker, Thiem misjudged an overhead smash, sending it into the back wall to end the match at 2:03am on Wednesday.

Nadal crossed over to Thiem's side of the net and the two embraced. Nadal said he told Thiem not to despair, seeing the potential for greatness in his future.

"He's young, he has plenty of time to win big tournaments, and he has everything, no?" Nadal said of Thiem. "He's a fighter, he has a great attitude. That's the most important thing."

Laughing, Thiem said he did not think Nadal was "really sorry". "But, no, he's a great guy," Thiem added. "I don't want to lose against anybody, but now I wish him the title the most, that's for sure. I think we almost all the time have great matches. I hope that we have many more in the future with a different end." NYTIMES