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2:56PM

Rafa and Thiem: 4 hours and 49 minutes in the Twilight Zone

By Art Spander

NEW YORK — The Yankees game against the A’s had ended about 45 minutes earlier. And that was in Oakland.

In New York, three time zones — and one twilight zone — to the east, they were still playing tennis.

Well, Rafael Nadal and Dominic Thiem were still playing tennis. You’ve heard of breakfast at Wimbledon. This was insomnia at Flushing Meadows.

Nadal, 32, the world's No. 1, would win, defeating Thiem, who is a solid No. 9, in a bizarre five-set quarterfinal, 0-6, 6-4, 7-5, 6-7, 7-6 (5), on Tuesday evening. Actually, on Wednesday morning, since the final point was at 2:03 a.m.

Nadal was resilient. So, too, were the fans at Arthur Ashe Stadium who stayed until the end.

You know the line from that Kander and Ebb song, popularized by the great Frank Sinatra, about waking up in the city that never sleeps. How about holding America’s tennis championship, the U.S. Open, in the wee small hours — to quote another song by Sinatra?

Officials and ESPN, which to its credit stayed with the match the full 4 hours and 49 minutes, love these late matches, as much for the attention as anything. Let’s see what’s on the tube. Oh, yeah, another John Wayne rerun. And, what’s this, a Rafael Nadal forehand?

Weary and sweaty — it was in the high 70s when the match started and headed back to the 90s Wednesday afternoon — Nadal, in a sleeveless shirt, stretched his arms at 90-degree angles in triumph. If some saw a religious connotation, that’s their choice.

Nadal’s choice is to play quicker. Then again, he was the one who staggered through the first set, which he “bageled,” to use the pros' term, a big zero, 6-0 for Thiem.

“After the first set,” Nadal said, “the match became normal.”

Not that there’s anything in sports happening after midnight to which the word “normal” can be applied.

When Nadal was told that besides his 17 Grand Slams, second to the 20 of Roger Federer — who didn’t win his late-night match Monday — the after-dark match would be another sort of record. His response was what one might expect at that hour, a smile.

“What is important about this match is the level of tennis,” he said, “the drama. When the things happen like this, the atmosphere and the crowd become more special. People get involved.

“Yeah, it has been great match, great atmosphere. Happy to be part of it. Not because it’s 3 in the morning (when he did his interview), I am happy about the ending.”

Thiem, a 25-year-old Austrian (yes, as in The Sound of Music and skiing), was not that unhappy. He went against one of the best and only lost in a fifth-set tiebreak.

“My earliest memory of Rafa,” said Thiem, “was when he beat Roger (Federer) in the French semis in 2005, I was 11 back then. Didn’t really think that I would also play him one day, but it’s very nice.”

Nadal’s win was not unappreciated by the tennis people. The Open is a one-of-a-kind event, with the late matches, the party atmosphere, the huge crowds that some days surpass 70,000.

The Open is New York in the extreme. Still, the top names — Serena Williams, Novak Djokovic, Federer and Nadal — are necessary for TV ratings and headlines.

The Yankees, the most important team in this town, are trying to get to the postseason. The New York football Giants and the rest of the NFL teams are about to start the season. There’s only so much space in the papers — the Post had a full story on Nadal-Thiem Wednesday morning — so second-raters get squeezed out.

Nadal, on the A-list, fortunately, squeezed in.

“I played a lot of long and tough matches in my career,” said Nadal. “This is one more. I like this feeling, but at the same time you feel tired. I lost at Wimbledon in a match like this. Today was for me.

“It’s just that someone has to lose. That’s part of the game. But personal satisfaction, when you give everything and you play with the right attitude, is the same ... Tennis is not forever, but you know the chances to play these kind of matches every time are less and less.”

He had the chance and did something with it.

9:38PM

Tennis Open is anything but a nightmare

By Art Spander

NEW YORK — Headline on the New York Post web site: “US Open’s week 1 has been a nightmare.” That’s the trouble with those tabloids, always understating the situation.

Nightmares are for Elm Street, not tennis tournaments. Nobody’s awakened screaming here. Just confused. Or angry. Or sweating. Or bewildered.

In other words, it’s a normal Open. The weather is oppressive, the players obsessive and the fans impressive. Hey, it was after 1 a.m. on Thursday, a qualifier, Karolina Muchova was beating Garbine Muguruza and there were people in the stands.

But this is the city that never sleeps, the place, we’re told, that if you can make it here you can make it anywhere. Whether that includes beleaguered tennis umpire Mohamed Lahyani is problematical, although he was back in the chair Friday on Court 13 to officiate a men’s doubles match.

The problem was that Lahyani got out of his chair Thursday and gave what appeared to be a pep talk to the slightly imbalanced Nick Kyrgios because Kyrgios seemingly was not trying in his match against Pierre-Hugues Herbert. The USTA announced on Friday that the well-respected Lahyani wouldn’t be suspended.

Think of an NFL referee giving advice to Tom Brady in the second quarter of the Super Bowl. But this is tennis, where women change shirts on court and players are allowed “bathroom breaks.”

For a while Friday, it appeared Rafael Nadal, the defending men’s champion, needed a break of a different sort. He lost the first set and was two games down in the second to Karen Khachanov of Russia. But there was no nightmare for Nadal, or for tournament sponsors who wouldn’t want to lose a top name in the first week.

This Open began with temperatures in the mid-90s, which brought grumbling — as we’ve heard forever, everybody complains about the weather but nobody does anything about it — and then evolved into a question of the competency of an official.

Among all this, Nadal, Roger Federer and Novak Djokovic kept winning, Muguruza and Caroline Wozniacki lost and the Williams sisters, Venus and Serena, were destined to play Friday night in a third-round match they didn’t want but the public certainly did. The American men, other than John Isner, couldn’t make it out of the first week, Sam Querrey inexplicably losing in the first round, Tennys Sandgren, Francis Tiafoe and Steve Johnson losing on Thursday, and Taylor Fritz losing on Friday in the third.

Fritz is known as the e-sports champion of the locker room, which is not exactly the champion of the court, but you can’t have everything,

What the U.S. Open, the final Grand Slam event of every year, has is its own personality. Some players dislike the atmosphere. Others say they enjoy the carnival approach, the distractions and no less the attention gained in competing where every day and night there are more than 50,000 spectators.

Federer, winner of 20 Slams including five Opens, says he embraces the Open, where the fans embrace him. He likes playing at night in 23,000-seat Ashe Stadium when the temperature drops and a tennis tournament becomes another off-Broadway hit in New York.

Nightrmare? For Roger, the Open is dream.

1:23PM

Nadal takes the time, and plan, best for him

By Art Spander

WIMBLEDON, England — So you say, let’s go straight to the men’s final, Roger vs. Rafa, and do away with the prelims and more importantly the questions?

What, and miss out on all those great forehands and pointed comments?

Roger Federer, of course, breezed through his first-round Wimbledon match Monday, then Rafael Nadal did the same on Tuesday, defeating Dudi Sela of Israel, 6-3, 6-3, 6-2.

“I did a lot of games good with my serve,” said Nadal, who as a Spaniard can be excused for an occasional double fault with the King’s English. As, presumably, he will excuse the journalists for asking him everything from the irrelevant to the irreverent.

The scribes didn’t necessarily do a lot of bad things, more a few stupid things, or unneeded things, tossing at him questions that would have sent a diplomatic guy like Bill Belichick away in anger but simply left the 32-year-old Nadal bewildered.

Three weeks ago, Nadal won the French Open, Roland Garros, for an 11th time. But that’s played on clay, and Wimbledon is on grass. There are several run-up events on grass, in Britain, Germany and the Netherlands. Nadal didn’t enter one.

And why not, he was asked.

“Because if I play too much,” said the perceptive Nadal, “then I come here, all the questions are: Why you not play less? Now I play less and the question is: Why you are not playing?’“

It turned out he was playing with us.

“I am just joking,” he added.

As earlier in this first week of the Championships did a former three-time champ from the mid-1980s, Boris Becker. Now 50, Becker returns to Wimbledon each summer to work as a color commentator for the BBC.

According to The Guardian, Becker both swore at the BBC’s Sue Barker and stole a joke from nine-time champion Martina Navratilova, who also gets behind the microphones at Grand Slam events.

Becker, who is German, has declared bankruptcy and also been involved in a dispute with the Central African Republic over the validity of a diplomatic passport the country gave him. “He just wanted diplomatic immunity,” said Navratilova, “so he wouldn’t have to wait at customs.”

We’ll have to wait for that possible match between Nadal, the No. 2 seed, and Federer, the defending champ and No. 1 seed.

Tennis, as baseball used to be, is a sport without a clock — and in truth, baseball still can go for hours, depending on the action or lack of it. Now Wimbledon may rule that a player must not take longer than 25 seconds to serve after the previous point.

“Personally,” said Nadal, “I don’t feel that’s going to bother me in terms of the sport. It you want to see a quick game without thinking, well done. If you want to keep playing in a sport you need to think, you need to play with more tactics, you want to have long and good rallies. Then you are going the wrong way.

“But seems like sometimes is only about the business. So I cannot support this, because I don’t feel the matches that stay for the history of our sport went that quick. All the matches that have been important in the history of our sport have been four hours, five hours.”

One of those was 10 years ago, 2008, when Nadal, in a 4-hour, 48-minute match that was decided 9-7 in the fifth set, outlasted Federer in what was the longest — and arguably, the greatest — Wimbledon final in history.

Think anyone that day was saying tennis needs a clock? It they wanted anything, it was a rematch. It isn’t speed that matters, it’s quality.

“To play these matches, you need time between points,” said Nadal, “because you cannot play points in a row with long rallies, with emotional points, having only 25 seconds between points.”

Great sport, whether it lasts minutes or hours, is timeless.

10:11PM

Rafa flexing his muscles

By Art Spander

INDIAN WELLS, Calif. — The bicep is the clue, the left one, so much bigger than the right, stretching the sleeve of Rafael Nadal’s post-match T-shirt. Tennis players, like blacksmiths, pound with one arm, hour after hour, day after day, season after season.

The serve, the forehand, all done with Nadal’s left. The two-handed backhand doesn’t make much difference. There’s an imbalance between the two arms, as there is for anyone who’s spent a lifetime in the sport.

Nadal is 30 now, old — veteran of more than 1,000 pro matches over 14 years, and winner of 14 Grand Slams — and yet in today’s world of improved diet and exercise techniques, he is young.

Roger Federer, beating Nadal in the final, won the Australian Open a month and a half ago at 35. And Nadal, apparently free of one injury after another, said, “I am playing at a very high level.” That includes his 6-3, 6-2, win Sunday in the BNP Paribas Open over an Argentinean named Guido Pella.

The great ones just keep playing: Nadal, Federer, Novak Djokovic, Andy Murray — yes, great, even though Murray, the No. 1 seed, No. 1 in the world rankings, was upset Saturday night by Vasek Pospisil. 

Playing against the other stars. Playing against themselves.

Tennis is their life, as well as their job. Tennis is what they do, what Rafa Nadal does, until someday he won’t be able to do it any longer.

They are competitors. They are globetrotters. Starting in December, Nadal has been in Dubai, Australia, Mexico and now the California desert. It beats being trapped in an office cubicle, especially when you’re able to beat most of your opponents.

Is it unusual that in tennis, as in golf, fans cheer for the favorite, not the underdog? They want Federer to win, Nadal to win. When that happens the paying customers are satisfied they got what they expected, what they wanted. “Hey, saw Djokovic break serve.”

Hard to know what the players want other than good facilities (the Tennis Garden at Indian Wells is one of the finest), good health and an effective game. They are nomads, facing the same people across the net or in the media rooms, trying to get a little more topspin, trying to do a little less explaining. Not that they don’t understand what comes with the territory.

Most of the better players, no matter if they’re from Switzerland, Serbia or Shanghai, speak English impressively. Nadal, however, used translators for his first several years. He has picked up the language, although with a strong accent, and sometimes his thoughts as well as his words are confusing to the listener.

To his credit, what Nadal, along with others of his skill level, has learned is he must deal with all sorts of questions from the press, some professional, some personal, some stupid.

On Sunday, after Nadal said he thought he played a solid match against the 166th-ranked Pella — “For a few moments I played well; for a few moments I played less well” — he was asked where the sport would be in the future. Would the men all be 6-foot-5? Would there be limits on racquets?

Nadal doesn’t want a serve and volley game, but one in which shots go back and forth, long rallies. “People can think it’s because it helps me, but I am talking about the sport overall, no? ... I think good points, if we want to maintain a good show for the people.”

With his frantic movements and his wicked forehands, Nadal presents an exceptional show. He’s a scrambler, a battler, not as graceful as Federer but arguably more exciting to watch.

“In Melbourne,” he said, meaning the Australian Open, “I played some great matches. In Acapulco (where he lost in the final to Sam Querrey) I played well. In Brisbane (before the Australian) I played well. In Abu Dhabi (Dubai, the end of December) I played great.

“Four events I played at a very high level. Very happy the way I started the season. Now there is another opportunity.”

An opportunity to continue flexing his muscles.

9:04PM

The new kid hits Broadway and beats Nadal

By Art Spander

NEW YORK — It was classic Broadway, if a few miles east at Flushing Meadows. The new kid shows up and, right there before our eyes, shows up the older guy, the champion. You can hear the words from the decades: “We’re going to make you a star.”

Except they don’t have to, because Lucas Pouille is now a star. He went from virtual anonymity to instant fame in the time of a single tennis match Sunday afternoon and evening, if a lengthy, dramatic match, stunning the great Rafael Nadal, 6-1, 2-6, 6-4, 3-6, 7-6 (6) in the U.S. Open.

Yes, a tiebreak in a fifth set that by itself lasted one hour and 10 minutes. Yes, a tiebreak in which Nadal, trailing 6-3 to draw even in a competition few in the bellowing, howling crowd in 23,000-seat Arthur Ashe Stadium thought Nadal ever would lose.

Yes, a tiebreak when Nadal had a wide-open forehand at 6-6 in that tiebreak — and hit it into the net.

“It was a very tense moment,” said Pouille (pronounced Puh-yeeh, or thereabouts). He is a 22-year-old Frenchman from the suburbs of Dunkirque on the English Channel, a relative unknown facing one the game’s finest, the 30-year-old Nadal who has won 14 Slams, with at least one victory in each of the four.

“After this,” said Pouille of the Nadal miss, “I was very comfortable. I wanted to take my chances.”

After this, meaning the fourth-round triumph, Pouille becomes one of three Frenchmen in the quarter-finals, one of whom, Gael Monfils, is his next opponent.

Nadal, a lefty, had been bothered by a bad left wrist. He pulled out of the French Open, a tournament he has won nine times, in late May. Then he skipped Wimbledon. But in August, he teamed with fellow Spaniard Marc Lopez to win the doubles title at the Rio Olympics and in singles there reached the semifinals.

Here, in the Open, he hadn’t lost a set. And the only time they had met previously, Nadal defeated Pouille, 6-1, 6-2, in straight sets. “When I was younger,” said Pouille, “I used to watch all his matches at the Open, the one against (Novak) Djokovic. I knew I had to be aggressive.”

So he was, jumping off to that 6-1 win in the first set by moving to the corners. No one then suspected we were in for a match that would last over four hours and finish with Pouille, after a winning forehand, flopping on his back in glee and sticking out his tongue.

That was his method of celebrating, not of mocking anyone. The fans, who as always in tennis support the best-known, Djokovic, Federer, Nadal, had shifted, not so much dropping Nadal as embracing Pouille.

What they were witnessing hour after hour was courageous, enthralling play, and they wanted to be part of it.

“The crowd,” said Pouille appreciably, “was just unbelievable. You just have to enjoy.”

There was no enjoyment for Nadal. He was the No. 4 seed, favored over No. 25 Pouille. At times Rafa produced some of the heroic, athletic shots we know and expect. But too often, there were mistakes.

“I think he played a good match,” said Nadal of Pouille. “He started so strong. I fight until the end with. There were things I could do better. Had the right attitude. I fighted right up to the last ball.

“But I need something else; I need something more that was not there today. I going to keep working to try to find. But, yes, was a very, very close match that anything could happen. Just congratulate the opponent that probably he played with better decision than me the last couple of points.”

These battles between a familiar and successful player and an outsider perhaps about to reach the next level inevitably leave us with mixed emotions, delighted that someone new takes the big step but also distressed at the failure of a player so long at the top. When Nadal walked out of the tunnel after the pre-match introduction, the approval was thunderous.

When he left the court, he smiled, if painfully, and waved.

“Was a big mistake,” he had said earlier about his forehand. “But you are six-all in the tiebreak. I played the right point. I put me in a position to have the winner, and I had the mistake. That's it.

“You cannot go crazy thinking about these kind of things, no? You have a mistake. The opponent played a good point in the match point, and that's it. The problem is arrive to six-all on the tiebreak of the fifth. I should be winning before.”

That is the lament of all losers, no matter how much they’ve won.