Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal showed their battling qualities on Thursday to remain on course for a first-ever meeting at the US Open.
In a sport full of statistics, one of the more remarkable remains the fact that these two totems of the game have not once met at Flushing Meadows, despite seven titles and 10 finals between them.
This year’s draw has placed them in the same top half, much to Nadal’s annoyance, so a semi-final showdown is their likely meeting place rather than the final.
However, both men will have to improve on their second-round showings if they are to encounter each other in the last four.
Nadal was in action under the lights against Japan’s Taro Daniel, and it looked like being a long evening for the top seed when world no 121 Daniel took the first set and then grabbed an early break in the second set.
The Spaniard, champion in New York in 2010 and 2013, battled back to eventually seal a third-round spot with a 4-6 6-3 6-2 6-2 victory but he admitted he will need to get better if he is to claim a second Grand Slam title of the year, and a 16th in total.
“All the matches are difficult and especially here. Everybody wants to play the best and if you don’t play your best, it’s very difficult,” said Nadal, who will face Leonardo Mayer after his four-set win over Yuichi Sugita.
“It’s a very important victory. It’s true I didn’t play very well but I’m through to the next round.
“I was a set and a break against but I felt in the first set that I had a lot of opportunities. I was thinking ‘let’s keep going and hopefully I’m going to convert one of these’.
“I need to improve a lot of things but I am here to try to improve every day. I’m going to work tomorrow to find better feelings and I really believe I’m going to do it much better.”
In the afternoon session, Federer needed a second successive five-set match to record his 80th victory at the US Open, seeing off fellow veteran Mikhail Youzhny.
Federer, chasing a record sixth US Open and third major of the year, came through against two-time semi-finalist Youzhny in a clash featuring opponents with a combined age of 71 – the older man winning 6-1 6-7 (3-7) 4-6 6-4 6-2 in three hours and eight minutes on Arthur Ashe Stadium.
The 36-year-old Swiss improved his perfect record against the former world No 8 from Russia to 17-0, but only after the world No 101 suffered from cramp early in the fifth set.
Federer, with a 20th Grand Slam title in his sights, needed five sets to get past US 19-year-old Frances Tiafoe in his opening match on Tuesday.
He was not quite himself for much of Thursday’s match, committing 68 unforced errors and appearing slowed by a bad back that he tweaked earlier in August, but victory over Youzhny, whom he first played 17 years ago, helped him set up a third-round showdown against Feliciano Lopez of Spain. His record against Lopez is just as solid – 12-0.
“It wasn’t always like this,” said the third seed. “I won in straights or lost in straights. These five-set battles are actually quite a lot of fun. I feel quite warmed up by now.”
“I haven’t played a lot of guys with cramps in the last decade, so it was somewhat new. It was hard to watch. I was feeling for Mikhail. We go back to the ’98 juniors here, we played each other in doubles. We’ve played a bunch of times and this was probably our best match.”
Meanwhile, Nadal’s uncle Toni has revealed that the duo believed the presence of Federer and Novak Djokovic meant the Spaniard would never become world number one.
Nadal most recently became world number one again during the Cincinnati Open in August and will be looking to end the year as the top player in tennis for the first time since 2013.
However, despite currently holding the top spot for a total of 143 weeks throughout his career, the Spaniard thought he would never reach the pinnacle of tennis.
With Federer becoming world number one in 2004 and dominating tennis for the next couple of years, Nadal, despite his many accomplishments, was stuck in second place.
Then with Djokovic coming into the fold and cracking the top three in 2007, there were fears that if anyone was going to overtake Federer, it would have been the Serbian.
“He (Rafa) became No. 2 in 2005 at only 19 years of age,” Toni said, as quoted on Tennis World USA. “It was the breakthrough year as he won 11 ATP titles including Roland Garros, and he was behind only Roger Federer.”
“Despite [the fact] he won three Grand Slam titles, he was in that position for three more years and at some stage Novak Djokovic, who was at the beginning of his career, made us think that we would never achieve it.
“So I joked and told Rafa: ‘Probably you will be the best No. 2 in the history’.”
Eventually, the 31-year-old reached the summit of tennis, defeating the Swiss ace in the 2008 final of Wimbledon and going on to become world number one for the first time in his career.
“At the end on 18 August 2008, after winning two other major titles and a gold medal at the Olympics, he made it,” Toni added.
Nine years on, it is still Nadal and Federer competing for top spot as the long-time rivals are vying to win the US Open.
The duo are both in the third round and could face each other for the first time in New York at the semi-final stage.