Rafael Nadal and Dominic Thiem have had some memorable battles on their favourite surface — clay. When the two met on hard court at the tour level for the first time on Tuesday at the US Open, tennis fans were in for a treat.
Nadal was bagled in the first set but the quarter-final match extended to four hours and 49 minutes — Thiem's longest-ever and the former's longest US Open outing.
At 2:04 am local time, not many were left at the Arthur Ashe Stadium but the ones who stayed back gave a standing ovation to both the players, who were unwilling to give up till the very last minute of the epic encounter.
Thiem had hit 74 winners but missed a relatively easy overhead in the fifth set tie-breaker to lose the match 6-0, 4-6,5-7,7-6(4), 6-7(5).
'Thiem is a fighter, he has great attitude'
Nadal swiftly jumped over the net and embraced his opponent, who had pushed him to the limits on a humid night in New York. The show of sportsmanship was a fitting end to the match that will be remembered for a long, long time.
"I am very, very sorry for Dominic. He is a close friend on tour. He is a great guy, great player. I just wish him all the very very best," Nadal told Tom Rinaldi of ESPN during the on-court interview.
When asked what he had told Thiem after going over the net, the 17-time Grand Slam champion said: "Just told 'I am very sorry' and 'you're good'. 'Keep going'.
"He is young, he has plenty of time to win big tournaments and he has everything. He is a fighter. He has a great attitude, that's the most important thing.
"He is a top person and I am sure he will have his chances in the future without a doubt."
Told myself to 'wake up' after the first set: Nadal
Nadal also revealed he had given up in the first set and wanted it to end quickly to focus on the remainder of the game.
The southpaw had won only seven points during the first set, which helped raise quite a few eyebrows. Nonetheless, the Spaniard managed to quickly put behind the disappointment and win crucial moments in the tie.
Known for his never-say-die attitude, Nadal saved a set point in the third set before winning it 7-5.
In the decider, he had three break points but Thiem, who was hitting winners at will both off his forehand and the backhand, refused to go away and took the match into the deciding tie-breaker.
"Yes, that is the right word [suffering]. It was a great battle. You know the conditions were tough, humid. It was a tough start but I tried to stay in match someway," Nadal added.
"Told myself to wake up [after the first set]. Was a very tough start. The only thing I was thinking is to finish the first set, forget about the start and focus on the rest of the match."