NEW YORK -- Rafael Nadal was methodical from the moment he got to Arthur Ashe Stadium on Saturday morning. Mary Jo Fernandez had to wait to interview him outside of the locker room before the match. His opponent Mikhail Youzhny waited bouncing at the net for Nadal to approach for the coin toss, and CBS had to wait until 12:26 for a match slated for a noon broadcast window.
Worse for Youzhny, Nadal was just as patient once the match started. In a shirt a shade brighter than a tennis ball, Nadal stalked the baseline to find his openings, and deliberately pounced for a break each set en route to a 6-2, 6-3, 6-4 win over the Russian in a U.S. Open men's semifinal.
"For me it's a dream right now I'm going to play for a final here in the biggest center court in the world," Nadal said on court after the match.
He said he arrived in New York a week before the open and that New Yorkers had made him feel at home. "You make me feel unbelievable," he said, and then acknowledged the victims of the attack of 9/11, which happened nine years ago to the day.
"I remember, everybody remember where they were at that moment, and I remember what happened that day and where I was," Nadal said.
He said he has gone to Ground Zero six times since it happened, and that it was one of the experiences that has impacted him the most in his life. Youzhny also wore a black ribbon to commemorate the anniversary.
With all the accolades and titles that Nadal has earned in tennis, it's almost inconceivable that he has never reached a U.S. Open final. Yet when he faces Novak Djokovic in Sunday's men's final, it will be his first appearance.
"Well, it's another step I think in my career, so for sure is a very important victory for me," Nadal said. "Yeah, be in the final of the last Grand Slam of the year is something new, because I always arrived here with problems."
If he were to win the title, Nadal would be just the seventh man ever to complete a career Grand Slam, and he would win his third major of the year. Already, he has won the French Open, Wimbledon, and Olympic gold for his native Spain. He is the No. 1 player in the world, and has yet to drop a set here at the U.S. Open.
With a three-set win in the early match, Nadal will have a few more hours of rest than his opponent, and that might be helpful considering he called a trainer during the second set to tape his left ankle. Later, he changed his shoes in front of a crowd that included celebrities like singer Tony Bennett, actor Gene Wilder and model Bar Rephaeli.
When Youzhny finally did break Nadal in the third set -- just the second time in the tournament any opponent had managed to break Nadal -- the crowd cheered as they were back on serve at 4-4. It was the the first time the Russian showed a sign of life, and when Nadal paused to change rackets when he saw Youzhny show the sign for new balls, the crowd booed.
Nadal had another break in him, set up on the second deuce of the game when Youzhny had Nadal on the ropes but missed a backhand volley into an empty court; it clipped the tape and fell back on his own side. Nadal followed that with a point off a blistering forehand that Youzhny couldn't get back to the net.
At two hours and 13 minutes in, Nadal had three match points. He won it on the first when Youzhny was unable to return his serve.
Two of Youzhny's three matches leading up to the semifinal had been five-setters. Wins over John Isner in the third round and Stanislas Wawrinka in the quarter had been long, and even the fourth-round win over Tommy Robredo went four sets. Five double faults were costly, the last ultimately contributed to Nadal's ability to break back and go up 5-4 in the third. The No. 12 seed also managed just two break points on Nadal's faster, more effective serve.
"I feel I play really good one game at 4-3 first set, like was lot of emotions," Youzhny said. "But if I can play like this on every game against Rafa, maybe -- it's not for sure -- maybe I can get chance to win."
Still, Nadal has made a career out of changing his stripes. He has been able to remain healthy this season into the late summer, and has become more than a clay-court specialist. Nadal has improved his serve so that it could be faster, reaching 132 mph in the semifinal.
"Now I can change the rhythm," Nadal said. "I can play a slice backhand. I can serve, win a little bit more free points with the serve, and I can play more close to the baseline. So the position on court improved, the slice backhand improved, and it was important shot for me to stop the rhythm of that player."
For his trouble, he gets a chance at a slice of history Sunday in the men's final. For once.