NEW YORK -- Rafael Nadal watched as his opponent hit an overhead beyond the baseline on match point and then dropped his racket to his side. He walked quietly to the center of the court, then stepped over the net and embraced 25-year-old Dominic Thiem.
It was the first still moment in nearly five hours of epic, smash-ball, anything-you-can-hit-I-can-hit-harder tennis. Under the lights of Arthur Ashe Stadium, Nadal and Thiem delivered the New York crowd another memorable marathon, this time for a spot in the US Open semifinals.
"What is important about this match is the level of tennis, the dramatic match," Nadal said in his news conference shortly after play ended. "When the things happen like this, the atmosphere and the crowd become more special."
With his first words to the media, Thiem underscored the weight of this match to both men. "It's going to be stuck in my mind," he said. "Forever I'm going to remember this match."
Nadal ultimately prevailed at 2:04 a.m., 0-6, 6-4, 7-5, 6-7 (4), 7-6 (5). It was only the third time in the Open era that a men's No. 1 seed won a match after being bageled in the opening set. On paper, Thiem was actually the better player Tuesday night. He needed only 24 minutes to take the first set. For the match, he hit 74 winners and 18 aces and stole six break points to Nadal's five. Until the fifth-set tiebreaker, the first contested so far this tournament, it was truly any man's game to win. In fact, Nadal never faced match point, and Thiem faced only one all night.
"He did all the things well to win the match," Nadal said. "Me, too. I fought until the end. It was a question of a little bit of luck at the end. I'm happy, of course, to be in the semifinals again. It means a lot to me."
Nadal's performance came 24 hours after another of the game's legends took center stage under the lights on Ashe. On Monday night, Roger Federer fell to unseeded John Millman, ending the world No. 2's dreams of capturing a title he hasn't won in a decade. But it was the way Federer lost -- exhausted, irritated and unable to find a new gear (or, at times, even second gear) -- that made his loss so stunning. And it was the way Nadal won -- with power and tireless energy, matching his younger opponent's athleticism and appearing to grow stronger with each monstrous forehand -- that told the story of how the two best players in the world have fared in recent months.
Nadal is coming off a French Open championship and a stellar run on hard courts that included a title in Toronto last month. Since mid-May, Nadal is 27-1 and only seems to be getting stronger. For his part, Federer has not played poorly; he made it to the final in Cincinnati just before the start here in New York but was overwhelmed by a surging Novak Djokovic. Despite opening the season with a title in Melbourne, his 20th major win, the image of Federer struggling against Millman on Ashe -- and later admitting to the media he was just happy the match had ended -- is what will stick in the minds of fans until he gives them reason to believe Monday was nothing more than an off day at work and not a signpost for the future.
But the fact that Nadal won and Federer did not was hardly the only difference in these two matches. Federer faced a 29-year-old, nothing-to-lose journeyman who was playing in the fourth round of a Slam for the first time in his career, a man who'd never beaten a top-10 player. Thiem is a top-10 player himself (he's currently ranked No. 9), a star in his own right who some consider to be the heir apparent to Nadal. Even the 11-time French Open champ himself has said he believes Thiem will win titles at Roland Garros and, if Tuesday night was any indication, that's only the beginning.
For now, that baton handoff will have to wait.
Nadal finishes Thiem in five-set classic
In a match that lasts 4 hours and 49 minutes, Dominic Thiem's shot goes long, giving Rafael Nadal the win in a tiebreak.