Youzhny upsets third straight Spaniard

NEW YORK -- Mikhail Youzhny, balancing his racket on his buzz-cut head, joyfully saluted the four sides of Louis Armstrong Stadium on Wednesday evening. The crowd returned his enthusiasm, even if he wasn't the victor they had imagined.

For Youzhny throttled Rafael Nadal, the No. 2 seed here at the U.S. Open, 6-3, 5-7, 7-6 (5), 6-1 to advance to the semifinals. It was a physical, slashing affair that consumed 3 hours and 16 minutes and featured brilliant tennis on both sides.

Afterward, Nadal was asked why he struggled against an unseeded player who is ranked No. 54 in the world.

"I do not agree," Nadal said. "But you think that -- OK. Not really. Maybe I play my best match in New York here today. My best tennis.

"Youzhny was playing unbelievable tennis. I was playing very, very good."

Got that? Very, very good -- which places the quality of Youzhny's tennis in a very special place.

And so, there will be no third-time-pays-for-all championship final clash between Nadal and No. 1-seeded Roger Federer. After splitting the French Open and Wimbledon finals, Federer -- an easy straight-sets winner -- is now on his own.

For Nadal, it was only the third tournament of the year that didn't see him reach the quarterfinals. It's worth noting this was Nadal's best effort at the U.S. Open in four appearances and suggests he could be a valid threat at next year's U.S. Open.

Who is Mikhail Youzhny? He's a 24-year-old Russian with a killer backhand and more than a passing resemblance to Justin Timberlake. After a number of fourth-round appearances in Grand Slams, he has achieved a career breakthrough.

"Almost all the spectators were for Rafa," Youzhny said. "I understand he is No. 2 in the world. But I was really, really glad during the match when a lot of the people started to say, 'Misha, Misha.' They call 'You, You, You,' because Youzhny is too tough for [them]."

And just when Youzhny thought his night couldn't get any better, he and doubles partner Leos Friedl went out and upset Bob and Mike Bryan -- the top-seeded and defending doubles champion -- in a third-round match that was carried over from Tuesday. The loss ends the Bryan brothers' Open era streak of consecutive Grand Slam finals reached at seven, dating back to the 2004 U.S. Open.

Last January, he was ranked a career-high No. 15, but has since settled back into mediocrity. In a four-month span earlier this year, he lost 11 of 16 matches.

"I work very hard, end of last year and beginning of this year," he said. "Sometimes, I was just waiting [for] results, because I saw I played very well in practice. When I go play in matches, I cannot show my best tennis.

"I think after Hamburg [in May], I understand I cannot [be] waiting anymore for results. I need to do something for results to come to me."

After dispatching two consecutive Spanish opponents, No. 11 seed David Ferrer and No. 6 Tommy Robredo, Youzhny set his sights on a third. He won the first set and Nadal leveled the match in the second. After a rally, the match came down to a single game, the 10th game in the third set.

With Youzhny serving at 4-5, Nadal won the first three points and had three chances to put the set away. He failed. Youzhny escaped, forcing a tiebreaker.

"I didn't have time to think about it," Youzhny said. "If I think about this, I think I can lose."

"In the most important moment, I have 5-4, love-40 one time in the third," Nadal said. "But I was not playing with my best game in the important moments."

The tiebreaker could be retold with a network mini-series. Youzhny took a 3-1 lead, only to have Nadal take a 5-4 lead. But then his forehand hit the top of the tape and skipped long, then Youzhny thundered an ace that clipped the line. On set point, Nadal's attempted forehand passing shot found the net.

"You touch the net and the ball goes out," Nadal said, "so that's not the best of luck, no?"

The fourth set, oddly enough, was no lo contendre. Nadal, who has made his reputation by succeeding late in difficult matches, faded. He won only 13 points in seven games. Even his coach, his uncle Tony, had to applaud Youzhny during his second-to-last last service game.

And now, Youzhny has his second 15 minutes of fame. Four years ago, he had a huge hand in winning Russia's first-ever Davis Cup. Youzhny became the first player to rally from a two-set deficit in a fifth and decisive match, beating Paul-Henri Mathieu in 4 hours and 27 minutes to give Russia a 3-2 victory over France.

On reflection, Youzhny allowed that the win over Nadal was the match of his career "because I played the same tennis from first point until last."

Unfortunately for Youzhny, there are no more Spaniards left in the draw. He'll get either Andy Roddick or Lleyton Hewitt, who played later Wednesday night.

"I didn't think before the tournament I can go [to] semis," Youzhny said. "I didn't think nothing."

What are his chances against either of the two former world No. 1s?

"Is better if you [reporters] talk about my chances," Youzhny said. "I just go in and play."

Greg Garber is a senior writer for ESPN.com.