Before last night, Rafael Nadal had torn through the U.S. Open draw without losing serve even once. But in just the third game of his quarterfinal match against fellow Spaniard Fernando Verdasco, he was broken at love. No doubt thinking eagerly back to Nadal and Verdasco's thrilling winner-strewn slugfest at the 2009 Australian Open, fans sat up in piqued interest. Despite the exhausting five-setter Verdasco played the round before (with perhaps the most amazing match point ever), he came out of the gates looking rested, finely tuned, and ready for a fight.
For the first time in the tournament, Nadal looked frustrated. Verdasco was dishing out some powerful defense, and his forehand down the line initially looked as lethal as ever. But the players were battling more than just each other last night; the wind was particularly strong, forcing both men to hit their bread-and-butter groundstrokes several feet long. Verdasco's ball toss was also affected, which invoked his old familiar foe, the double fault. (He ended that epic Australian Open match in heartbreaking fashion, with a double fault.) Several such miscalculations from Verdasco led to Nadal leveling the field at 4-4, and with some careful adjustments to his game, Nadal took the first set.
Now, with a dialed-in forehand and aggressive game strategy in place, Nadal once again looked in control. And despite Verdasco's hopeful start, his frustration eventually got the better of him. As a result, the second and third sets were significantly less competitive. It became so one-sided that at one point Nadal felt the need to apologize for his own stunning play to calm his compatriot's obvious aggravation. (Of course, moments later, Nadal hit a crowd-pleasing half volley while spinning 360 degrees at the net.)
Fans were hoping for a repeat of that Australian Open match, which exhibited power baseline tennis at its very best, but for all the comparisons to that match, something very crucial has changed since then: Nadal no longer stays glued to the baseline. In an effort to cut down on the wear and tear to his knees, Nadal has learned to be more aggressive and charge the net when necessary. And on top of that, he's become quite the proficient volley-er, even eliciting praise from John McEnroe (himself an all-time great).
Nadal's offense was a significant reason for Verdasco's rattled demeanor, as he constantly broke the rhythm of a rally and won 76 percent of his net approaches. With no strained abdominals or busted knees, Nadal won it in straight sets in easily the best form he's ever exhibited at the U.S. Open. Nadal plays Mikhail Youzhny next, and as talented as the Russian is, it seems incredibly likely that the Matador will finally make it to his first final in Flushing.