Rafael Nadal is the most formidable athlete in the modern game but the Spaniard yesterday became one of the first players to have to send for a trainer in the middle of a press conference. In remarkable scenes in the main interview room after his third-round victory over David Nalbandian here at the US Open, Nadal had to stop answering questions because of severe cramp in his right leg.
Lying back in his chair and grimacing with the pain some two hours after the end of his match, the world No 2 then slid to the floor before asking for help. The room was cleared before a trainer arrived to treat the defending champion with ice and fluids.
Nadal, who had been talking about the prospect of facing Gilles Müller's big serve in the next round when he halted the press conference, was back on his feet within 10 minutes. He called the press back into the room to resume the conference, explaining that it had simply been a case of cramp, which he had felt in the front and back of his leg.
"I will train normally on Monday," Nadal said. "It was just a normal cramp that could have happened anywhere, but it happened in the press room. Anywhere else, nobody would have noticed."
Perhaps the episode should not have been a surprise at the most illness and injury-ravaged Grand Slam tournament in the Open era. By the end of Saturday 14 players had retired in the middle of their matches – two more than the previous record – and four others had withdrawn before they were due to play.
Given the conditions it was hardly a surprise that those on court were suffering. It was so hot and steamy that you could work up a sweat just making the five-minute walk to Arthur Ashe Stadium from the subway station. You would have imagined that the player who would have suffered most would have been Nalbandian, the prince of perspirers, particularly with the mighty Nadal on the other side of the net.
The 29-year-old Argentine's shirt was soaked before you could say "vamos", but it did not stop him giving Nadal a good work-out. The Spaniard, who won 7-6, 6-1, 7-5, often takes time to find his form – he looked especially vulnerable in the early stages here last year before winning the title that completed his collection of Grand Slam crowns – but gave his best performance yet to maintain his record of reaching the fourth round of every major he has played in the last six years.
Nalbandian, who won his first five matches against Roger Federer and his first two against Nadal, is widely regarded as the best player of his generation who has never claimed a Grand Slam title. In recent times injuries have taken their toll on the 2002 Wimbledon finalist but his talent is still evident. Deciding that attack was his best option, Nalbandian took the game to Nadal from the start, going for big winners, attacking the net and throwing in some exquisitely judged drop shots.
The world No 76 played beautifully to take a 5-3 lead, Nadal having dropped his serve with a double fault on break point in the fifth game, but the world No 2 went on to win 10 of the next 11 games. The second set lasted just 27 minutes and by the end of it Nalbandian, maintaining his attacking approach, had made 37 unforced errors to Nadal's six. Nadal served conservatively and defended every point as if his life depended on it, regularly forcing his opponent into mistakes.
Nalbandian, to his credit, kept fighting, but the days when you would never write him off at two sets down are fading fast. Nadal was broken in the opening game of the third set but broke back immediately, upon which he took a medical time-out for treatment to blisters on his right foot. Nadal broke again in the sixth game, failed to serve out for the match at 5-3, but went on to make his seventh break to take the match.
Müller, Nadal's next opponent, beat Igor Kunitsyn 6-1, 6-4, 6-4. The world No 68 from Luxembourg pushed Nadal hard at Wimbledon this summer and enjoyed his best run at a Grand Slam tournament when he reached the quarter-finals here three years ago.
Andy Roddick, whose year has been dogged by injury, beat France's Julien Benneteau 6-1, 6-4, 7-6. The American now faces David Ferrer, a 6-1, 6-2, 7-6 winner over Germany's Florian Mayer.
Britain's Colin Fleming and Ross Hutchins, who enjoyed a fine victory over the world's No 3 doubles team of Max Mirnyi and Daniel Nestor, are through to the quarter-finals of the men's doubles after the withdrawal of their next opponents, Marcel Granollers and Marc Lopez, due to the former's injury. Another British pair, Jamie Delgado and Jonathan Marray, meet the Poles Mariusz Fyrstenberg and Marcin Matkowski in the third round.