Rafael Nadal shows his intent with masterclass against Hyeon Chung

Rafael Nadal was in fine form in New York. Picture: Elsa/Getty ImagesRafael Nadal was in fine form in New York. Picture: Elsa/Getty Images
Rafael Nadal was in fine form in New York. Picture: Elsa/Getty Images
While everyone has been watching the other side of the draw – will Roger Federer and Novak Djokovic meet in the semi-finals? How is Djokovic’s sore shoulder holding up? – Rafael Nadal has been moving quietly and ominously through his half.

Yesterday he squeezed the life out of any hint of a challenge from Hyeon Chung of Korea 6-3, 6-4, 6-2 in just under two hours to reach the fourth round of the US Open. He was authoritative, controlled and utterly ruthless. As Greg Rusedski pointed out on Twitter a couple of days ago, in his view Nadal seems to be hitting the ball better than ever. Federer and Djokovic may be hogging the limelight but Nadal has his focus fixed on the final weekend in New York.

“I am trying to play a little bit more aggressive, I am trying to play a little bit less than before,” Nadal said. “I am not 25 anymore! But I’m happy to be in the fourth round. It has been a good first week for me but you never know what’s going to happen. The only thing that matters for me is that I am in the fourth round.”

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A couple of years ago, Chung, inset, was the first of the new generation to make his mark on the tour. As everyone searched for the new stars to push the likes of Federer, Djokovic and Nadal, along came the Korean and won the inaugural Next Gen finals, the end-of-season championships for the best eight players in the world aged under 21.

Two months later, he followed that up by reaching the semi-finals of the Australian Open in 2018. Beating Daniil Medvedev, Alexander Zverev and then Djokovic, he headed for the last four only to withdraw after a set and a bit against Federer. His tennis was sensational but he could not go on with badly blistered feet. Still, he broke into the world’s top 20 a couple of months later and he seemed to be on his way to the top.

A back injury robbed him of six months of this season and coming back to work at the end of July, his ranking had slumped to No.166. As he headed to New York, he was down to No.170 and had to come through the qualifying competition to get into the main draw. To make his date with Nadal, he had already played 16 sets of tennis.

Most players with any sense of self-preservation tend to keep away from Nadal’s forehand and its terrifying topspin but when the same Nadal saw Chung’s forehand, he stood well back and took evasive action – the 23-year-old hits the shot as if his life depended upon it. The average speed of his forehand in the first set was 93mph. Chung could split concrete with it.

Not that Nadal is easily scared. It took a set for him to work out where Chung’s weaknesses might be – the strengths were fairly obvious – and then he started to apply the thumb screws. The problem for Chung was that what he had to show in the opening set was all that he had to offer. It was not bad but it was not enough to stop Nadal from reaching the fourth round.

As for the champion of 2010, 2013 and 2017, he was looking pretty good. Of course, there were the thundering ground strokes but there were also the deft volleys – and not just the simple put-away to end the point – and there was the careful crafting of each point.

Chung did not know what to do next but Nadal knew exactly what he was doing and where he was going – off to the second week of the US Open and an appointment with either Marin Cilic or John Isner.