Rafael Nadal has feasted on Russian opposition in the past but Karen Khachanov nearly served up a major US Open upset on Friday, forcing the world number one to rally for a breathless 5-7 7-5 7-6(7) 7-6(3) third round win.
Not since 2011 has Nadal lost to a Russian but his string of 16 victories stretching back to 2011 looked ready to end along with his US Open title defence when big-hitting Khachanov came out with guns blazing.
The 27th seed kept up the pressure throughout a four hour, 23 minute thriller that was the Spaniard’s longest ever match at Flushing Meadows.
“I am very happy to be through in a very tough situation,” Nadal said in an on-court interview.
“There were some tough moments during the match, but he played aggressive. There are things to work on for the next round, but the good thing is I have a chance to improve.”
After coasting through his first two matches, Nadal appeared poised for another uneventful day against a 22-year-old he had beaten four times without dropping a set.
That run came to a halt when the Russian took the opener by pounding eight aces past a misfiring Nadal, including one to clinch the set.
The Spaniard found himself in an even deeper hole when Khachanov collected the early break in the second, putting Nadal on the ropes down a set and a break 5-4.
No player in tennis, however, is more dangerous than Nadal when threatened and, with Khachanov serving for a 2-0 lead, the 17-times Grand Slam champion’s famous survival instincts kicked in and he snatched a clutch break.
Rain began to fall while Nadal celebrated, forcing a delay as the Arthur Ashe stadium’s retractable roof was closed and providing the defending champion with an opportunity to regroup.
When play resumed, a focused Nadal went to work holding serve and then breaking again to get the match back on level terms.
But Khachanov was also in the mood for a fight and the third set went to a tie-break which Nadal won 9-7 with the help of three double faults.
The tie-break seemed to deflate Khachanov as Nadal moved in for the kill, grabbing the early break in the fourth to jump in front 2-1.
But the drama was not over yet and the massive crowd surrounding the stadium waiting to watch the Williams sisters’ primetime showdown was forced to wait a little longer.
Khachanov, with Nadal serving for the match, dug deep to break the Spaniard yet again and force another tie-break but that was as far as the Russian revolt went with Nadal progressing to a fourth round meeting with Nikoloz Basilashvili.
Kevin Anderson goes the distance to dispatch Denis Shapovalov
Fifth seed Kevin Anderson came through a second marathon match, defeating flamboyant Canadian Denis Shapovalov 4-6 6-3 6-4 4-6 6-4 to set up a fourth-round clash with Austria’s Dominic Thiem.
Anderson, losing finalist last year at Flushing Meadows, fired 11 aces and clubbed 31 winners in his second five setter of the week after going the distance in his first-round battle with American Ryan Anderson in Monday’s heat.
In cooler conditions on Friday, Anderson’s serve was, as usual, his most potent weapon but it was his defence that proved the difference.
The towering South African saved seven out of nine break points he faced and forced Shapovalov into 77 errors, much to the dismay of the vocally pro-Canadian crowd.
Talented teenager Shapovalov, the 28th seed, was the sloppier of the two and topped the unforced errors count while also stumbling into eight double faults.
The roof closed on the newly built Louis Armstrong Stadium for the first time during the second set, but it did not appear to disrupt the momentum of either player.
Anderson heaped praise on his opponent, who is 13 years his junior, calling Shapovalov an “unbelievable competitor” during a post-match broadcast interview.
“That was an amazing match,” the 32-year-old said. “You’re definitely going to be seeing him in the years to come.”
Shapovalov was similarly deferential, telling reporters after the match that Anderson “played unbelievably big”.
“I’m really happy I was able to compete out there with him,” the 19-year-old said. “It was a close match. I had a lot of chances to break back, wasn’t able to do it today.”
Anderson, who has reached the final at two of the last four Grand Slams, leads his fourth-round opponent Thiem 6-1 in their head-to-head but fell to the 24-year-old in May in the Madrid Masters semi-finals.
“Going to have my work cut out for me,” said Anderson. “Really going to have to focus on my game, continue doing what I’m doing.”
Milos Raonic stops Stan Wawrinka’s charge
Big-serving Canadian Milos Raonic halted former champion Stan Wawrinka’s charge, beating the Swiss wildcard 7-6(6) 6-4 6-3 to book his berth in the last 16.
Wawrinka, making his first return to the site of his 2016 triumph since undergoing knee surgery, showed he was still shaking off the ring rust despite encouraging victories in the first two rounds.
The first set went down to the wire with nothing to choose between the two rivals, neither of whom were unduly troubled on serve.
Raonic lost the first three points of the tiebreak before recovering to level at 3-3 and showed great strength of character to save two set points before going on to claim the opener.
“It was tough,” the Canadian said in an on-court interview. “I was fortunate I got through that because I was falling behind in that tiebreak.”
Wawrinka, who had won four of his five previous matches against Raonic, could not match his opponent’s intensity in the final two sets and paid the price for some poor shot selection.
The 33-year-old is one of the best all-court players on the men’s circuit and his one-handed backhand is matched only by that of his compatriot Roger Federer in terms of elegance.
It let him down repeatedly on Friday, though, as Raonic, sensing a weakness, targeted that side and duly prospered.
The Canadian serve-and-volley specialist made sure he stayed on the front foot throughout, firing down 14 aces to Wawrinka’s four and coming to the net behind his booming serve 37 times with a success rate of 73 percent.
“I’ve got to just keep getting sharper,” added Raonic, who is seeded 25th. “I’ve got to find a way to get ahead a little earlier in the points and not get too defensive.
“If I can play on my terms I can compete against anybody.”
Next up for the 27-year-old is a last-16 clash with American John Isner, the 11th seed, who beat Serbian Dusan Lajovic earlier in the day.
Dominic Thiem battles back to defeat Taylor Fritz
Ninth seed Dominic Thiem fought back to defeat American Taylor Fritz 3-6 6-3 7-6(5) 6-4 and reach the fourth round.
The Austrian fired down 18 aces and broke Fritz five times to set up a meeting on Sunday with last year’s losing finalist Kevin Anderson.
“I’ve always lost in the fourth round so I think it’s time I get to the quarters,” Thiem said in an on-court interview after making it through to the last 16 for the fourth time.
The French Open finalist had to battle his emotions as well as the 20-year-old Fritz on an overcast day at Flushing Meadows.
Trailing 2-0 in the third set, frustration boiled over for Thiem and he destroyed his racket on the hardcourt of the Grandstand.
“A lot of bad things were going through my mind as everyone could see,” an embarrassed Thiem said.
“I’m very sorry for that.”
Later in an eventful set Fritz, serving with a 4-2 lead, unsuccessfully dived for a volley and cut his knee on the court, sending blood trickling down his leg and leading to a medical timeout.
“I just scraped it. I do it all the time when I slide,” he told reporters afterwards.
“It’s fine. Just a cut.”
Thiem finally took control of the match when Fritz sent a forehand long on set point in the third-set tiebreaker.
When Thiem was about to serve for the match at 5-3 up in the fourth set, rain halted proceedings for about 20 minutes.
Upon resumption, Thiem handed Fritz a lifeline as he produced three double faults to surrender his serve.
But the American’s hopes of forcing a fifth set were shortlived as Thiem broke back to seal the match when Fritz sent a backhand long on match point.
“We both played bad service games, traded breaks,” Fritz said of the final two games.
“That’s because we played four sets basically, then just sat on nothing. It was cold. Just did nothing for like 10, 15 minutes, then had to stand up. I bet he was stiff as well.
“It’s just what happens.”
Thiem said he knows he has his work cut out for him when he faces big-serving South African Anderson in the fourth round.
“He’s one of the hottest players on tour right now,” Thiem told reporters.
“Last four slams, he made two finals. Out of the big servers he’s the one with the best baseline game and with the best return.
“You are under pressure basically the whole match,” he said.
Juan Martin Del Potro eases past Fernando Verdasco
Former champion Juan Martin del Potro put on assured display to register a straight-sets victory over Spanish veteran Fernando Verdasco in their third round encounter.
The third seeded Argentine has yet to drop a set in New York but was pushed hard by the left-hander, who has a hard-earned reputation for being one of the trickiest opponents on the tour.
Verdasco lasted two hours and 59 minutes at Arthur Ashe Stadium before he eventually succumbed 7-5 7-6(8) 6-3 as the clock ticked past midnight at Flushing Meadows.
“It was a really nice fight for both. We played three great sets tonight and people enjoyed the fight,” 2009 champion Del Potro said in a courtside interview.
“He was a good fighter tonight so I give all my best to him.”
Del Potro sent down 12 aces, 41 winners and won 80 percent of his first serves to reinforce the impression that he is fully fit and well on course to go deep at this year’s tournament.
Playing with freedom after a protracted struggle with a troublesome wrist that required multiple surgeries, he showed the confidence of someone at his peak, refusing to get rattled even when Verdasco started to make inroads on his serve.
Cheered on by a raucous crowd that went through their repertoire of songs and chants between points to ensure an electric atmosphere throughout, Del Potro took four of the five break point chances he carved out and won 18 points at the net.
His fourth round opponent is Croatian 20th seed Borna Coric, who beat Russia’s Daniil Medvedev in straight sets earlier in the day.
There was even time for Del Potro to discuss what he had been doing in his downtime after his matches and issue an invite to one of his idols, Bruce Springsteen, to come watch him play.
“I’m very fond of ‘The Boss’ and I got lucky,” Del Potro said. “I went to the theater on Broadway and after the concert I met him. It was almost like winning this title for me. Maybe he will come (to watch me play).”