At about 11 o’clock New York time on Friday night, a visible portion of the crowd at the Arthur Ashe Stadium leaked out of exit points. The last match of the evening session, Rafael Nadal versus Fabio Fognini, hadn’t yet concluded, but the fight had long been extinguished. Nadal, two sets to zilch up, had just broken the Italian’s serve and spirit early in the third. Holding serve was all that remained to seal a fourth round spot.
But very next game, Nadal was broken. On love. And about three hours later, at exactly 2 am New York time on Saturday morning, the Spaniard’s universe had flipped upside down. That soaked black T-shirt had given way to a white and dry one. His smile had turned into a scowl.
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And instead of talking to the press about an electric straight-set victory, Nadal tried explaining a most shocking five-set loss. “I didn’t lose. He won,” he said, trying to keep his answers shorter than his opponent’s will for a rally. Fognini’s utter disgust for a duel had seen him turn suicidal by attempting a winner (from both sides of his racquet and all sides of the court) at every given opportunity. Seventy of those scorchers landed, puncturing fist-sized holes in Nadal’s counter-punching game. Seventy of those scorchers also made Fognini achieve what no other man, myth or machine had ever before — defeat Nadal after conceding the first two sets in a Grand Slam match.
“Well, with Rafa you have to try that,” Fognini said. “Because otherwise if he starts running at the beginning, you finish (the match) at the end of the week!”
Make no mistake, Fognini was in hot pursuit of these rally punctuations right from the get go. In the first set, despite lacking too many answers, the man from the north Italian plains of Sanremo had 12 winners to Nadal’s 7. But it came at the cost of 20 errors to his opponent’s 13.
Likewise in the second set, outweighing the Mallorcan in both columns quite comfortably. But the errors had dropped to 16. Fognini was finding his rhythm. By the end of the fifth, that rhythm was a full blown symphonic piece of art.
Not everyone appreciated it. At 4-all in the final set, the foamy dregs of this match, Nadal played perhaps the most embarrassing service game of this match. And there were quite a few to choose from. Four times he connected his first serve. And four times it was blasted back by Fognini.
Two return winners. Two one-twos. All smoked back with minimal footwork or fuss. All oozing with Sehwagian ease. Nadal had been broken for the fourth time in the set and Fognini was a game away from saying: “I did something incredible today. Never too late to try something for the first time.”
Several of these incredible firsts occurred here in New York tonight. It was the first time that Fognini reached the fourth round of the US Open. It was also the first time since 2005 that Nadal failed to cross the third round at Flushing Meadows. But one incredible first outshone all others. It was the first time in 11 years that Nadal turned a calendar page without a Grand Slam win.
“The only thing that means is I played worse than the last 10 years,” Nadal said without much hesitation, summing up his 2015. Then, after a short pause, he summed up his previous decade with the same eloquence. “By the way, you can now imagine how difficult it was to be amazing for last 10 years. I think nobody else has done (winning 10 years on the trot) before.”
Nadal had won the French Open in every year except one of the previous 10. That exception was 2009, in which he claimed his only Australian Open title. This year he didn’t make it past the quarters of any Slam. and now fears not qualifying for the season-ending Masters Final. “Don’t know if I’ll be there,” he said, brows knotted in the middle. “I’ll probably play Davis Cup and then Beijing, Shanghai, Basel and Paris. Can’t tell you about London. Haven’t qualified yet.”
So how did this overwhelming drop in form occur, he was asked. Has the power-game softened with ageing muscles? Have the reflexes dropped with the ticking of time? A physically exhausted and mentally burnt out Nadal churned those words in his head and didn’t bother to stifle a laugh.
“We can be talking for one hour trying to create a reason. But the sport for me is simple, no?” he said, setting it up. “The answer is easy to explain, easy to understand, but very difficult to change. I’m not putting the same confidence on the ball as I used to, no? It’s that simple.” Not top-spin. Confidence. Who would’ve thought?