Monday 20 November 2017

Federer-Nadal 'Big Grapple' edging closer

Rafael Nadal waves to his supporters after beating Alexandr Dolgopolov Photo: AP
Rafael Nadal waves to his supporters after beating Alexandr Dolgopolov Photo: AP

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Blame the hubris of corporate America if you like. In 2008, kit suppliers Nike became so excited about the prospect of a US Open final between Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal that they commissioned wild-haired boxing promoter Don King to hype it up, using the fight-style moniker 'Grapple in the Apple'.

Unfortunately, tennis isn't boxing, where you know the identity of your next opponent months in advance.

And it isn't WWF wrestling either, where the most convenient results can be arranged. Nike rather forgot this when they launched their campaign before the US Open had even started.

Sure enough, Murphy's Law intervened, and events stubbornly refused to follow the script.

Federer might have fulfilled his part of the bargain, but Nadal was defeated by a 21-year-old Andy Murray in the semi-final.

That near-miss proved to be the beginning of a decade-long jinx. Despite four more close shaves - two of which involved match points to set up the dream final - the twin titans of modern tennis have still never played each other in New York. Not even in an exhibition at Madison Square Garden.

Today, as the US Open completes its quarter-finals, we're back on the brink for a sixth time. Federer faces old rival Juan Martin del Potro, while Nadal will take on a cocky young buck in Andrey Rublev.

Should both win, they will reconvene on Friday for their 38th meeting overall. Or instalment XXXVIII, as Don King might call it.

In theory, the omens look encouraging. For the first time since Novak Djokovic entered his pomp in 2011, Rafa and Roger arrived in New York as the pre-eminent figures in the game.

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Among the fans, they have never been more popular, supplementing their old charisma with the extra frisson that surrounds great athletes in the twilight of their careers.

Arthur Ashe Stadium might have been largely deserted yesterday for the first men's quarter-final - which pitted 12th seed Pablo Carrena Busta against the diminutive Argentinian Diego Schwartzman, but we can expect every one of its 23,000 seats to be occupied if the long-awaited showdown should come to pass.

So what are the chances of the Big Grapple finally being delivered? Both men looked scratchy early in this tournament, after setbacks in the build-up.

Federer's concern was the back muscle he tweaked during the Montreal final against Zverev just over three weeks ago, while Nadal came in feeling short of his usual implacable focus after losing to Nick Kyrgios and 18-year-old Denis Shapovalov in his two hard-court build-up events. Yet, as the days have passed, both men have established their old ascendancy.

'Bottom rub'

Their fourth-round matches passed almost without incident - except for the brief 'bottom rub' that Federer received from a physio after the second set of his 6-4, 6-2, 7-5 win over Philipp Kohlschreiber.

He surged through in 1hr 50min, while Nadal - uncharacteristically - was even more hasty, taking care of Alexandr Dolgopolov in 1hr 41min.

Rublev might be the owner of a huge forehand, but few believe that a 19-year-old will be able to cope with the pressure of the occasion, as well as Nadal's legendary tenacity.

And then there is Del Potro, whose only previous meeting with Federer in New York was a memorable one: the 2009 US Open final, where he came from behind to score the biggest victory of his career.

In normal circumstances, Del Potro would stand as a significant roadblock, but you have to wonder what shape he will start in after taking five sets and just over three-and-a-half hours to overcome Dominic Thiem. (© Daily Telegraph, London)

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