The third-round US Open matchup between Rafael Nadal and Karen Khachanov was quite a battle. The Russian had lost all four of their meetings, but their latest matchup in Toronto was his best effort yet, losing 6-7(3), 4-6 to the Spaniard. If that match was any indication of how things would go, it was never going to be easy for Nadal.
The defending champion came through from a set down to win in nearly four and a half hours 5-7, 7-5, 7-6(7), 7-6(3).
Russian's Resistance Breaks Through
Trouble loomed quickly for the Russian after Nadal unleashed a trademark down the line forehand winner plus an errant wide forehand gave Nadal two break points. Khachanov held, continuing his run of not having dropped serve throughout the tournament. The defending champion was subsequently broken after not taking his chances with an aggressive second serve return from the Russian to get a forced error from Nadal.
Khachanov's mental strength was really tested after bricking a routine volley to give Nadal another break point, but he would save it once again. The Russian delved into familiar territory after falling behind in another service game, and Nadal made him pay with a cross-court forehand winner to break back for four-all.
The youngster did not let the break deter him though. He got his chance to get back ahead in the 11th game. Nadal, who is an exceptional volleyer, didn't do enough with it on break point down as the Russian got up to the ball and guided a backhand pass to put him a game from the set.
A chance for two set points went awry after Khachanov decided to jump and hit a backhand into the open court but missed it wide. Chances against the top players don't come too often. Champions always turn it up with their back against the wall, but the resistance from Nadal was broken in the end as Khachanov took his first-ever set off Nadal 7-5.
Nerves Get To Khachanov
Khachanov continued to really outhit and force errors out of Nadal, breaking in the third game of the set. The Russian continued to flirt with the dangerous game of saving break points, holding off a couple more in the fourth game.
The 22-year-old was eventually broken back as the defending champion hit a forehand passing shot to give him break point then a missed backhand leveled the set at four-all. The Russian would not stop relentlessly attacking though, setting up triple break point. Nadal saved two and missed an open cross-court, short forehand wide to put the 27 seed four points from a two-set lead.
Tension continued to rise with Nadal breaking again for five-all as rain began to fall. The roof closed, and the major momentum shift officially began. A point away from a tiebreak, Khachanov hit back-to-back double-faults and was broken to level it at one set apiece.
Tense Tiebreak Goes The Way Of Nadal
If you truly believed the momentum hadn't swung into Nadal's favor after the opening game, you were sorely mistaken. Down three break points, he came up with a couple of magnificent forehand winners that found the corner and held to open the set.
Serving for three-all, Khachanov missed a volley into the open court wide to set up break point for the Spaniard. Nadal's return on break point floated but was called good. The Russian challenged it, risking going down a break if the call stood. Luckily, things stood on serve for the Russian and would remain that way for the rest of the set.
Both players had uncharacteristic misses to start the tiebreak with an early double-fault from the Russian followed by another forehand cross-court miss from Nadal. Another double-fault gave the double mini-break lead to Nadal at 4-2, only for him to concede it right away again after missing a cross-court backhand wide.
Nadal flourished, working the space from all corners of the court to go up 6-3, capping off the point with a backhand pass. Even with three set points at his disposal, the reigning champion could not close it out even on his serve with a big forehand from the 22-year-old finding the corner as the two changed ends again.
It was another mental lapse from Khachanov, who double-faulted once again at a crucial time late in a set, allowing Nadal to serve for the set once again. Five was the magic number for Nadal, winning the tiebreak 9-7 as the 27 seed dumped his backhand into the net in a point that had mishits, slices, offense, and defense.
Nadal Battles To Close It Out
The end of the second set and the late points in the tiebreak in the third set were something Khachanov would sorely regret not taking his chances. The Russian sent a backhand long in his second service game to give the Spaniard the lead. Nadal consolidated for 3-1, but Khachanov held to keep some sort of scoreboard pressure on the Spaniard.
Back-to-back winners gave the Russian a look on the Nadal serve, but an unreturnable serve down the tee fended off the Russian for another game. The defending champion's following service game was relaxed as it could be, holding at love to move within a game from the fourth round.
The fightback from the Russian was real, coming through to for five-all. Nadal saved set point to force another tiebreak. The Russian had run out of steam though, falling behind 1-6 in the tiebreak as Nadal held a handful of match points. The defending champion closed the match out in his third time of asking, taking the breaker 7-3.