NEW YORK -- Rafael Nadal is as gracious and complimentary as can be whenever discussing an upcoming foe, so it came as no surprise to hear him talk up the player he'll face in the U.S. Open semifinals Friday, 23-year-old Matteo Berrettini of Italy.
"Nice guy. Young, with very good potential," Nadal said. "He's in the semifinals of a Grand Slam, so he's playing great."
After all, Nadal explained, "You can't expect an easy opponent. You can't expect an easy match. I really believe that if you want to win tournaments, you need to go through tough opponents."
In this instance, though, the No. 2-seeded Nadal will not need to go through the toughest ones of all. That's because he is the lone member of the Big Three still standing.
Novak Djokovic, the defending champion and No. 1 seed, stopped playing while way behind in his fourth-round match, citing a painful left shoulder.
Roger Federer, the No. 3 seed and owner of 20 Grand Slam titles, finished his five-set loss to 78th-ranked Grigor Dimitrov in the quarterfinals, but was clearly compromised by a problem in his upper back.
Win two more matches — against No. 24 Berrettini first, then against either Dimitrov or No. 5 seed Daniil Medvedev in the final — and Nadal would raise his major championships total to 19. That would allow him to move within one trophy of Federer's record for men, and with time on his side: Nadal is 33; Federer is 38.
Nadal made it to the semifinals at all four Slams in 2019. His lone title from those tournaments came at the French Open, where he defeated Federer but did not play Djokovic. At the Australian Open in January, Nadal lost in the final to Djokovic. At Wimbledon in July, Nadal lost in the semifinals to Federer, who went on to lose a nearly five-hour final to Djokovic in a fifth-set tiebreaker.
Each of the past 11 majors has been won by one of that trio.
If anyone other than Nadal ends up holding the trophy Sunday, it would be the first time since Marin Cilic at the 2014 U.S. Open that there is a first-time Slam champion.
One of these really is not like the others.
Neither Berrettini, seeded 24th, nor Medvedev had ever even reached a major quarterfinal until this week. Dimitrov, the lowest-ranked semifinalist at Flushing Meadows since a 39-year-old Jimmy Connors was outside the top 150 in 1991, is 0-2 in past trips to the semifinals at Grand Slam tournaments.
Dimitrov's resurgence is quite sudden: He used to be ranked No. 3 but has struggled with injuries and inconsistency.
"The past six, seven months have been pretty rough for me. But I had somebody to lean on — my friends, my family. I kept on believing again in the work, the rehab I had to put behind my shoulder, the exercise, the practice, fixing up the racket a little bit. There were so many things I had to adjust in such a small, but big, period of time," Dimitrov said. "Next thing you know, you're almost (at the) end of the year, you have a result like that. It's pretty special to me."
Berrettini and Medvedev, both just 23, have shown signs that this sort of thing could be on the way.
Medvedev leads the tour in wins this season and in appearances in tournament finals. He has a varied style that helped him make it to the title matches at three hard-court tuneups heading to New York.
Berrettini saved match points in the third round at Wimbledon to earn his Week 2 debut at a major, then ran up against Federer.
Now he takes on Nadal, someone Berrettini called "the greatest fighter ever in this sport."
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