Rafael Nadal displays his emotions during his five-set match against Dominic Thiem. (AP: Adam Hunger)
Rafael Nadal was forced to go the distance in an epic five-setter against Dominic Thiem in their US Open quarter-final, while Serena Williams fought back to beat Karolina Pliskova and reach the semi-finals in New York.
Nadal, the men’s world number one and defending champion, needed a fifth-set tie-break to end the challenge of ninth-seeded Thiem, winning 0-6, 6-4, 7-5, 6-7 (4-7), 7-6 (7-5) in a match lasting almost five hours and finishing around 2:00am (local time).
The Spaniard, chasing a fourth US Open crown, was shut out in the first set when he failed to win a game for only the fourth time in 282 career matches at majors. It is the first time he won a match after that kind of start.
Nadal also trailed by a break in the third set before taking it but came within two points of victory late in the fourth before being pushed to a fifth, where he was two points from a loss.
But Nadal held on and is into the semi-finals at a third consecutive Grand Slam tournament, as he bids for a fourth US Open title and 18th major trophy overall.
“I’m very sorry for Dominic,” Nadal said.
“He’s a close friend on tour, a great guy and I wish him the very best … he is young and has plenty of time to win tournaments.”
Nadal will face 2009 champion Juan Martin del Potro next, with the 2009 champion having outslugged John Isner 6-7 (5-7), 6-3, 7-6 (4-7), 6-2 to reach the last four.
Juan Martin del Potro won the US Open in 2009, to date his only grand slam triumph. (AP: Andres Kudacki)
Earlier the 36-year-old Williams, who is bidding for a record seventh title at Flushing Meadows as well her 24th major singles crown, started sluggishly in the night session, allowing Pliskova to take a 3-1 lead in the opening set before rebounding to win 6-4, 6-3.
With the heat rule in effect and junior matches on the outside courts suspended earlier in the day, Williams made 22 unforced errors in the opening set but showed all of her big-match pedigree to battle back and close out the set by winning the last four games.
“The crowd was really rooting for me and I felt so bad because everyone out here was cheering and I wasn’t winning so I thought I had to try harder,” Williams said courtside.
“I really feel like right now I’m playing free. I was having a baby this time last year so I have nothing to prove.”
The second set was far more comfortable for the 17-seeded Williams.
Serena Williams celebrates during her straight-sets win over Karolina Pliskova. (AP: Adam Hunger)
Two successive breaks of serve allowed Williams to win her eighth game in a row and open up a 4-0 lead, and she saw off a brief fightback from Pliskova before sending down her 13th ace to seal the match in one hour and 26 minutes.
“When I get to a grand slam, I feel I want to play really hard. I want to do really well. I love this game so maybe that’s why,” added Williams, who was beaten by Pliskova in the 2016 semi-finals.
Williams was on track to meet defending champion Sloane Stephens in the semi-finals but her third-seeded countrywoman was dumped out of the tournament via a 6-2, 6-3 loss to 19th seed Anastasija Sevastova.
Stephens lacked the swagger she showed through the opening four rounds and wilted in the sun-baked daytime conditions against Sevastova, who became the first Latvian woman to reach the US Open semi-finals.
Sloane Stephens had won two of her previous three matches against Sevastova. (AP: Andres Kudacki)
Sevastova, who avenged last year’s quarter-final loss to Stephens in New York to reach her first major semi-final, converted five of her eight break points and saved seven of the nine against her on the Arthur Ashe Stadium court.
By failing to step up her game for the key points, Stephens allowed the match to get away from her quickly and despite a late fightback, was in no shape to pull off a comeback.
Sevastova makes most of steamy weather
Stephens, who was visibly struggling under the sauna-like conditions, simply had no answer for the steady stream of drop shots sent her way by Sevastova, who later said she was not trying to take advantage of the sweltering conditions.
“I saw that she was struggling. I was struggling also a little bit, but I didn’t show it that much. But I don’t play dropshots when I see the player struggling or bending over, no,” Sevastova said.
“I just play them instinctively, and that’s how they work, or don’t work sometimes.”
Sevastova, who retired from tennis in 2013 due to injuries before returning in 2015, nearly let Stephens into the match in the second set as the American twice pulled back on serve at 2-1 and again at 4-3, but the fightback proved short-lived.
Latvian world number 18 Anastasija Sevastova had previously retired from the sport. (AP: Andres Kudacki)
Serving for the match, the Latvian raced out to triple match point and although Stephens saved two of them, Sevastova sealed the win when the 25-year-old American pushed a backhand into the net.
“I could have s*** the bed [lost] in the first round, and that would have been really bad,” said Stephens, who is projected to drop five spots to eighth in the world rankings.
“So the fact that I made it to the quarter-finals and played some really good matches and I just competed as hard as I could, I mean [there’s] a lot to be proud of.”