It’s been 15 years in the making but Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal are hurtling towards a box-office first-time showdown at the US Open.
A night after titleholder and world No.1 Novak Djokovic quit with a shoulder injury to open the door for his two great rivals, Tiger Woods was in the house as Nadal joined Federer in the last eight with a 6-3 3-6 6-1 6-2 fourth-round victory over former champion Marin Cilic.
A finalist in three of the four grand slams and triumphant at Flushing Meadows in 2014, Cilic threatened to crash the party after taking the second set against Nadal on Monday night.
But the relentless Spaniard rallied like only he can to chisel out victory after two hours and 48 minutes to reach his 40th grand slam quarter-final – and ninth in America.
Nadal and Federer are now within a pair of wins each of finally clashing on the sport’s biggest stage at Arthur Ashe Stadium in what would complete the set of grand slam finals between the sport’s most enduring rivals.
The two tennis titans have duelled on 40 occasions since first squaring off in Miami in 2004, including 12 times at grand slam level, most recently in this year’s French Open semi-finals.
They have played for the title twice in Australia, four times in Paris and in three Wimbledon finals but never before in New York, let alone in the championship decider.
But now only four men – including one fellow grand slam champion – stand in the way of the blockbuster final the entire tennis world wants to see.
Second-seeded Nadal will carry a seven-from-seven record against Diego Schwartzman into their quarter-final on Wednesday.
The Spaniard also boasts a dominant 14-2 winning record of Gael Monfils and has never played his other respective semi-final opponent, first-time grand slam quarter-finalist Matteo Berrettini.
Federer, the third seed, is 7-0 against his quarter-final rival, Grigor Dimitrov, and would be a hot favourite to win a semi-final against fellow Swiss and three-times major champion Stan Wawrinka or upstart Daniil Medvedev.
The 20-times grand slam champion’s only three losses in 26 meetings with Wawrinka have come on clay, while Federer has beaten Medvedev all three times they’ve met.
Schwartzman’s date with destiny with Nadal came after an extraordinary 17 double-faults from sixth seed Alexander Zverev gift-wrapped the South American a 3-6 6-2 6-4 6-3 victory.
“Alex had many problems with his serve … that helped me a lot,” said Schwartzman, now the only man capable of denying a 40-0 European decade of grand slam whitewashes.
Berrettini, the 24th seed, roared through to the last eight of a slam for the first time with a 6-1 6-4 7-6 (8-6) win over Nick Kyrgios’s third-round slayer Andrey Rublev.
The unseeded Russian had also taken out world No.8 Stefanos Tsitsipas but Berrettini’s 37 winners proved too much.
“My weapons were really good today. I was mixing up my tennis,” Berrettini said after becoming the first Italian quarter-finalist since Corrado Barazzutti in 1977.
Next up for 23-year-old Berrettini is 13th seed Monfils, who crushed Pablo Andujar 6-1 6-2 6-2 to stride to within a win of equalling his run to the 2016 semi-finals in New York.
US OPEN MEN’S QUARTER-FINAL MATCH-UPS
23-Stan Wawrinka (SUI) v 5-Daniil Medvedev (RUS)
3-Roger Federer (SUI) v Grigor Dimitrov (BUL)
24-Matteo Berrettini (ITA) v 13-Gael Monfils (FRA)
20-Diego Schwartzman (ARG) v 2-Rafael Nadal (ESP)