September 5, 2015
Rafa Nadal, losing a match after going two sets up? It’s unheard of…until now.
As his dashing conqueror, Fabio Fognini pointed out afterwards: ‘It’s always tough playing Rafa. But playing against him when you’re two sets down is especially tough. You go a break up in the final set and you start thinking too much. But I did it in the end. Nearly four hours and it’s nearly 1.30am in the morning. I’ve very happy about my performance and now I’m going to try and get some sleep.’
How he deserved his moment of triumph, as he looked back on an epic 3-6, 4-6, 6-4, 6-3, 6-4 victory. Standing tall, he pinged one impossible shot after another past a dazzled Nadal. Backhands and even more devastating forehands seemed to be sent down from the tennis gods. Fognini surveyed his work and strutted slowly away from each scene of battle, posing unashamedly, with increasing confidence. Deep inside he might have been struggling to get over his astonishment at his own brilliance.
In a pulsating match which saw the Italian maestro fire no fewer than seventy winners, Nadal’s lack of offensive weaponry was cruelly exposed. And we never thought we’d say that about Rafa, either.
His serve was blunt, his forehand strangely inhibited, and though he found thirty winners and could still have won this thriller, the real fireworks came from the other side of the net.
You have to wonder whether Nadal will ever win another Grand Slam, though he has been written off before and proved everyone wrong then. Dumped out by Dustin Brown in the second round of Wimbledon, now this…it’s been a tough year for Rafa, the first since 2004 without a Grand Slam title.
As he lingered and waved to the crowd at Flushing Meadows, what was going through his mind? Disappearing into the tunnel on his way back to the locker room, he almost seemed a broken man. But he soon recovered to take some positives from what had, after all, been a fabulously entertaining night.
Nadal said later: ‘I tried to fight until the last ball, it was a good attitude but it was not enough. I had opportunities but he played better than me. I didn’t play bad. It was good that my mind allowed me to fight until the end as I did all my career but sometimes that doesn’t allow you to win. I enjoyed the crowd, the support was amazing and gave me a very special feeling.’
As Rafa was keen to point out, he is a fighter, and yet he was outfought here, even with victory in sight. He had said previously that his confidence was returning, and the self-confessed nervousness had all but disappeared.
Yet those psychological complications seem to have returned, if ever they went away. When the mind is willing but the body isn’t, something in the mind is weakened too. Opponents sense that weakness. And whereas Fognini might have crumbled himself in the not-too-distant past, there is less fear now of what Nadal can do to a man.
The abiding memory from a match that summed up all that is best about the US Open was Fognini’s timing. Effortless, destructive power from the face of his racquet, timing so good that New Yorkers forgot it was the middle of the night and roared their approval. As they danced wildly and savoured every moment, they too might have wondered how many more times they would see Nadal do battle.
In theory, the Spaniard could play for another seven years or so. But defeats hit him hard. There were tears in his eyes and he appeared to feel he had let his adoring fans down. He will want to believe that he really can return to his elusive best. He will search for reasons why that should be the case, given more time. He will seek reassurance from those around him.
When fighters don’t look so good and lose a few too many fights, some even start to contemplate retirement. But Rafa isn’t punch-drunk just yet. He looks a bit bewildered about what is happening to him, though.
Maybe he should talk to Roger Federer about how to adjust to the passing years, how to mix up tactics more and stay aggressive. In short, Federer has reinvented himself and remained a warrior. Time for Rafa to do the same.