WHAT HAPPENED: Andrey Rublev could only stop and stare. Rafael Nadal had just darted to the net and blasted another backhand winner past Rublev during their US Open quarterfinal on Wednesday afternoon.
The Spaniard had broken the 19-year-old Russian for the third time in the opening set and now led 5-1, and frustration began to set in for Rublev, who was making his Grand Slam quarterfinal debut.
Standing at the net, the Russian glared at Nadal and then batted at his racquet with his left hand. Unfortunately for the #NextGenATP player, things wouldn't get much better under a closed roof in Arthur Ashe Stadium.
In his cleanest performance of the tournament, Nadal blitzed past Rublev, 6-1, 6-2, 6-2, to reach the US Open semifinals for the first time since 2013, when the Spaniard won his second and most recent Flushing Meadows crown.
"I think I have been improving during the whole event, and I have been doing step forward match by match, and now is the moment to do it, another step forward, a little bit higher is possible, too," said Nadal, who reached his 26th Grand Slam semifinal. "So I think I have the attitude to try to make that happen. I am excited about the semifinals. I know I am going to have a very tough opponent in front, and I need to play my best."
Four years ago, Nadal beat Frenchman Richard Gasquet in the semifinals and the Serb Novak Djokovic in the final for the title. Roger Federer had fallen in the fourth round to Spaniard Tommy Robredo, or Federer and Nadal would have played in the US Open quarterfinals that year.
But we're in the same place four years later. If Federer can avenge his 2009 US Open final loss to Juan Martin del Potro in the second quarterfinal in Arthur Ashe Stadium on Wednesday evening, Federer and Nadal will meet for the 38th time--and the first time in Queens.
"It's something a little bit strange that we've never played here, no?" Nadal said. "I will be very excited to play that match, of course."
The Spaniard did more than hold up his side of the draw. The 31-year-old broke in the second, fourth and sixth games of the opener to take the first set after 23 minutes, his fastest set of this year's US Open. It was a stark change for the Spaniard, who had started slowly in his earlier matches. In the first two sets against Leonardo Mayer in the third round, Nadal had missed his first 13 break points and fallen behind a set before coming back against the Argentine.
The Spaniard would need no such dramatics against Rublev, who struggled against his childhood idol. The Russian made 43 unforced errors, including seven double faults, compared to 18 winners. Nadal, meanwhile, won 75 percent of his service points and more than half of the points that started on Rublev's racquet. "He played with more mistakes than usual," Nadal said.
Nadal vs. Rublev
WHAT IT MEANS: Your turn, Roger. At the start of the fortnight, fans and pundits dreamed of Federer and Nadal meeting in the semifinals in New York. Now we're one match away. The two all-time greats have already played three times this year, and all have been on hard courts, and all have been won by the Swiss right-hander, who beat Nadal in Melbourne, Indian Wells and Miami.
Nadal, though, would savor the opportunity to add to his 23-14 head-to-head advantage in the biggest stadium in tennis.
MATCH POINT: Should Nadal face Federer in the semifinals, what will the Spaniard have to do to knock off the five-time US Open champion?