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A tall task for a tall man: Getting past Rafael Nadal

NEW YORK -- The replica of the US Open trophy that Juan Martin del Potro received when he won the 2009 Open occupies a highly visible place in his home in Tandil, Argentina.

"I like to see that trophy every single day in my home," del Potro said after eliminating John Isner in the quarterfinals of the US Open on Tuesday. "I don't know if I can get a new one, but I'm doing all my best to try to get one again."

Del Potro will have to overcome a massive obstacle in Friday's semifinals if he hopes to realize that ambition this year. His semifinal opponent is Rafael Nadal, who not only is top-ranked and defending champion but is coming off a celebrated quarterfinal performance. His stature has increased to the point where he now throws shade even on Roger Federer as a warrior in New York.

Nadal and No. 9 seed Dominic Thiem earned a place in the history books with their four-hour, 49-minute struggle on Tuesday night. Their battle left spectators with jaws agape and emotions drained, but they were rooted in their seats despite the brutal heat and humidity.

For Nadal and his team, however, it was business as usual.

"We didn't do anything special after the match," Nadal's coach, Carlos Moya, told ESPN.com on Thursday. "We did ice-water [bath] and hot shower, muscle stimulation and activation. Also some bike. Rafa was OK. His knee is OK. He has had some rest. But we are happy that we had the extra day [Wednesday] off to prepare."

Del Potro, who's a lean 6-foot-6, faces an order as tall and leathery as he is. But he's accustomed to adversity. It was established as the surprise theme of his career just months after his sensational upset of Federer in that 2009 US Open final. His career degenerated into a series of wrist surgeries and false starts at comebacks until 2016. His struggles are but one reason fans seem to love the introverted, Bunyanesque master of the bone-jarring serve and forehand.

He arrived in New York this year with his best chance in years, traveling with a morale-boosting posse of about a dozen friends from his hometown.

Del Potro has painstakingly fought his way back into the mix at the top to hit a career-high ranking of No. 3 in March. He's bamboozled Federer two of the past four times they've played -- in the quarterfinals here last year and in the final of the Indian Wells Masters 1000 in March.

"I'm very happy for my level, for what all I have been through to get in this position now," del Potro said. "I think it doesn't matter the final result in the tournament. I just enjoying playing tennis again. I'm enjoying a lot the crowds like this. I like to play big battles with other guys. That's makes me feels alive again."

Touching words, for sure. But if del Potro hopes to earn that new US Open trophy for his mantle, he will probably have to beat both Nadal and Novak Djokovic, who faces Kei Nishikori in Friday's other semifinal.

And they have emerged as towering forces at this tournament. Delpo is a combined 0-5 against them since he beat both men on his way to the silver medal at the 2016 Olympic Games in Rio.

Nadal is the more immediate concern. Two of those five losses were to Nadal, the most recent a thrilling five-setter in July at Wimbledon. But the more ominous match was their clash last year at this same place, time and stage. Nadal dropped the first set, then figured out del Potro's password and erased his hard drive in the next three. Del Potro's wrist problems left him without an effective backhand weapon, and Nadal took full advantage.

"I feel better with my backhand, but it's not good enough to win a title like this, or to win [beat] the top guys in a row," del Potro said after that loss. "Against Rafa, you must hit winners from both sides. I didn't tonight. He played maybe 80 percent of the game to my backhand, and there was the advantage for him."

Del Potro is telling a slightly different story about his backhand this year. True, he's using his two-handed, aggressive backhand sparingly, but he's integrated his slice backhand more seamlessly.

"I'm be available to choose between slices or two-handed backhands, which is a good combination for my new style of game," he said after his fourth-round win.

"That slice backhand is really good now," Isner said. "That's from him working on that all the time."

Yes, but is it good enough to take on Nadal?

Paul Annacone, who coached Federer for years and works as an analyst for Tennis Channel, told ESPN.com, "I don't think Delpo's backhand is strong enough to be a weapon against Rafa, but it's definitely less of a liability than it was a year ago."

Annacone feels del Potro has a chance "if he can beat Nadal to the punch" and consistently deploy his most devastating weapon, the one-two combination of serve and powerful forehand. "It's tough to do on these slow courts over the course of a five-setter," Annacone said. "But as far as having the weapons and power, Delpo can do it."

Nadal knows how badly del Potro wants to find his way to the trophy presentation ceremony again. He has nothing but respect for del Potro. "He's a great player on grass," Nadal said after his last win. "Well, he's a great player everywhere. But the challenge of playing him on [this] hard of course is even higher for me personally than playing against him on clay."

The 17-time Grand Slam champion understands what del Potro has been trying to accomplish for all these years.

"I had a very tough injury in 2005," Nadal said. "I had the chance to really appreciate all the things that happened to me during my career because also I had in different moments tough injuries. So when you are back, you always appreciate the things that happens, and have more value, more personal value, when you come from tough moments."

Nadal can empathize with del Potro. But don't expect him to show any sympathy, much less pity. That second US Open trophy may not be delivered to del Potro's home this year.