For most of this year the rivalry between Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal has dominated the tennis landscape, but in the space of a few hours here on Wednesday night the horizons changed. By the time Arthur Ashe Stadium had emptied, Nadal was on his way home while the man he had supplanted as Federer's greatest rival, Andy Roddick, had underlined his renaissance with a formidable show of strength against Lleyton Hewitt.
Nadal's 6-3, 5-7, 7-6, 6-1 defeat at the hands of Mikhail Youzhny was the shock of the tournament so far, if not the whole year. Having swept all before him on clay and been denied only by Federer at Wimbledon, the Spaniard was a firm favourite to reach his third successive Grand Slam final.
Yet despite what he considered his best performance at Flushing Meadows, Nadal was beaten by an opponent playing his first major quarter-final. Cleverly changing the pace and angle of his shots and attacking the net when the opportunity arose, the 24-year-old Youzhny delivered his finest display since the 2002 Davis Cup final, when he came back from two sets down to beat France's Paul-Henri Mathieu in the decisive rubber to give Russia their first title.
It was the world No 54's fourth defeat of a seed here this year and his third successive routing of a Spaniard, following victories over David Ferrer and Tommy Robredo. He went on to complete an extraordinary day by partnering Leos Freidl to victory over the Bryan brothers, the world's best doubles team.
Youzhny, who reached No 15 in the world rankings last January but has suffered with knee and back injuries, put the result down to hard work. Nadal hailed the Russian's "unbelievable tennis" and felt that there had been nothing wrong with his own game other than an uncharacteristic failure to play the big points well.
Nadal refused to offer the surface as an excuse, but he has yet to show his best on hard courts and has had a mediocre summer on the American circuit. Nevertheless it would be wrong to read too much into this defeat. Nadal swept all before him on clay and made a phenomenal effort to conquer grass, turning up to practise at Queen's Club 24 hours after lifting the title at Roland Garros.
A dip in form was probably inevitable, particularly for a player who celebrated his 20th birthday only three months ago.
The world No 2 promised to "improve and work hard every day" over the next four months - he believes he needs to pay particular attention to his volleys and returns of serve - and says the Australian Open in January will be his "special goal" in 2007.
In tomorrow's semi-finals Youzhny will play Roddick, who has seen his fortunes transformed since Jimmy Connors took over as his coach this summer. The 24-year-old American, whose miserable first half of the year culminated in a thrashing from the British No 1 Andy Murray at Wimbledon, outgunned Hewitt 6-3, 7-5, 6-4 with a display that recalled his victory here in 2003 and his runs to the Wimbledon finals of 2004 and 2005. Both players had only four break points, but Roddick converted all of his while Hewitt could manage only one.
Roddick's serve and forehand packed their usual power, but what impressed most were his double-backhanded winners and his confidence at the net. "I guess I can play tennis a little bit again," Roddick said afterwards. "I'm in a little bit of shock. It's been a rough six months for me."
The two quarter-finals in the other half of the draw were being played last night, with Federer facing James Blake and Tommy Haas meeting Nikolai Davydenko.
Maria Sharapova has not won a Grand Slam tournament since her Wimbledon triumph two years ago but reached her fifth semi-final in the nine subsequent majors by beating France's Tatiana Golovin in straight sets. The No 3 seed now plays Amélie Mauresmo, the No 1, while Justine Henin-Hardenne, the No 2, faces the outsider of the last four, Serbia's Jelena Jankovic, the No 19.
Sharapova's form has been patchy but she showed her resolve by beating Golovin for the fourth time in succession, winning 7-6, 7-6 after a match lasting more than two hours. The Russian won the two tie-breaks 7-4 and 7-0.Reuse content