One small step for Nadal and Federer, one giant leap for their possible head-to-head showdown

Third-round wins at Grand Slams are commonplace for two all-time greats who have combined to win 34 such tournaments. Saturday at the U.S. Open, however, felt just a little bit different than normal.

With talk of a first-ever Rafael Nadal vs. Roger Federer showdown in New York dominating the headlines, the two protagonists of that potentially epic semifinal saga took giant leaps toward that destination–which could become a reality next Friday.

After the first two rounds of this event, however, Nadal vs. Federer looked like nothing more than an unattainable dream. Nadal started off slowly against Dusan Lajovic but eventually recovered for a straight-set win after breaking serve to stay alive in the opening set at 4-5. The top-seeded Spaniard started even slower against Taro Daniel on Thursday night, trailing by a set and a break only to storm back and prevail in four.

If that was cause for concern, Federer’s first two matches inspired downright panic. The five-time U.S. Open champion needed five sets to hold off Frances Tiafoe, even failing to serve it out at 5-3 in the fifth before breaking to clinch victory. Federer made an even bigger mess of things against Mikhail Youzhny, falling behind two sets to one before surviving another five-setter. All the while, his back looked far less than 100 percent.

But then round three happened.

Although Nadal once again came out of the gates in wretched form on Saturday afternoon (trailed by a set and faced double break point early in the second), he raised his level considerably to overcome Leonardo Mayer 6-7(3), 6-3, 6-1, 6-4. The world No. 1 finished with 39 winners and 26 unforced errors, and in the last three sets he blasted 30 winners compared to just 13 errors.

“I was able to play more free, to start to attack better with my forehand” Nadal said after converting his first break of the match on his…wait for it…14th chance midway through the second set. “I changed more forehands down the line, hitting some good backhands later. I think the level of tennis after that break have been very positive. I hope that last three sets can be a good turning point for me because, in my opinion, I played much better today than the two previous days later in the match. You need matches like this.”

Federer needed a match exactly like his Saturday night tilt with Feliciano Lopez, which started two hours late due to the length of Nadal vs. Mayer and a pair of three-set women’s matches that preceded it.

Erasing all back-injury fears, Federer improved to 13-0 lifetime against Lopez by making routine 6-3, 6-3, 7-5 work of the 35-year-old. The five-time U.S. Open champion fired 13 aces while double-faulting only once and he doubled his unforced error total with winners (32 to 16).

“I was happy I had good energy because I think that was my biggest worry, that somehow after the two five-setters that I had, I was going to feel a little slow,” Federer explained. “It didn’t happen.”

And now it looks like Nadal vs. Federer will.

3 Comments on One small step for Nadal and Federer, one giant leap for their possible head-to-head showdown

  1. Somehow I think the winner may just come from the other side of the draw, or Federers quarter. Del Porto or Thiem
    or Shapovalov all look good. Much as I admire Federer and Nadal it’s a great opportunity for all the players left in the draw. Good luck to them all.

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