For the first time in his career, Rafael Nadal lost a Grand Slam match after taking a two-set lead. And for the first time since 2004, he will end a season without winning at least one Grand Slam title.
“The only thing it means,” Nadal said about that streak coming to a close, “is I played amazing the last ten years.”
Once so seemingly invincible, able to run down every last ball and tough to slow down once out in front, Nadal was beaten 3-6, 4-6, 6-4, 6-3, 6-4 by 32nd-seeded Fabio Fognini of Italy in the third round of the US Open.
“To win like that – against him, from two sets down – is something incredible,” Fognini said, calling it a “mental victory”.
The eighth-seeded Nadal’s defeat, which finished at nearly 1:30am yesterday, follows exits in the quarter-finals at the Australian Open and the French Open, then the second round at Wimbledon.
He said he must “accept that [it] was not my year”.
Once ranked No.1, he dropped as low as No.10 in 2015, his lowest spot in a decade. The 29-year-old Spaniard also has spoken openly about a crisis of confidence.
“What I [am] doing worse is playing worse than I used to do the last couple of years,” he said. “That’s it.”
Nadal, who has won two of his 14 career major titles at Flushing Meadows, not only claimed the first two sets against Fognini, but also led by a break in the third at 3-1.
He couldn’t sustain it, though, as Fognini began taking more high-risk shots – and putting plenty right where he wanted them, winding up with more than twice as many winners as Nadal, 70 to 30. “You have to attack him,” Fognini said.
Asked how it was possible that an opponent could produce that many winners against him, Nadal smiled and joked: “Maybe I am slower.”
Ripping big groundstrokes off both wings, many on a full sprint, for more than three-and-a-half hours, the two men engaged in entertaining exchanges that thrilled the Arthur Ashe Stadium crowd that included Tiger Woods. “An incredible match, for sure,” Fognini said. “We killed ourselves.”
The 52-minute fifth set alone was filled with one apparent momentum swing after another. Starting at one-all, there were seven consecutive breaks of serve, a pattern that finally ended when Fognini broke to go ahead 5-4, then held to end it.
Fognini reached the fourth round at Flushing Meadows for the first time. The last Italian man to get that far at the US Open was Davide Sanguinetti a decade ago.
Nadal, meanwhile, had won 22 of his last 23 US Open matches, including earning championships in 2010 and 2013, and reaching the final in 2011. He missed the tournament because of health issues in 2012 and last year.
He tried to look on the bright side as he spoke to the media at about 2:30am, saying that he was pleased that his mind allowed him to “fight until the end, something that I was missing for a while”.
But Nadal acknowledged there are problems with his strokes, particularly not enough topspin on his forehand and too-shallow groundstrokes in general.
“Easy to understand, easy to explain, difficult to change,” Nadal said. “But I’m going to do it.”
Meanwhile, Serena Williams believes her supporters feel more nervous than she does about winning the calendar Grand Slam.
Williams staged another dramatic comeback under the lights of Arthur Ashe stadium as she came from a set down to beat American wildcard Bethanie Mattek-Sands 3-6, 7-5, 6-0.
It is the eighth time the world No.1 has come from a set behind to win at a grand slam this year and Williams will play Madison Keys in the last 16.
The 21-time major champion is bidding to become the first player since 1988 to hold all four major titles in a single year but she insists she remains relaxed about the milestone.
“I don’t have to win this event. It’s not the end of the world for me,” Williams said. “Getting to Wimbledon and winning the Serena Slam [four major titles in a row], that really meant a lot to me. That tournament I felt on the edge a lot.
“This one I don’t feel that way. I think people feel that way more than I do, but I don’t feel like I need that more than anything.
“Of course it’s there. I’m not a robot or anything. But at the end of the day I’m just here to do the best I can.”