In addition to his bad injury luck, Rafael Nadal just keeps running into opponents at Grand Slams who are playing the match of their lives.
Nadal was taken out of the U.S. Open on Sunday in a four-hour thriller by 22-year-old Lucas Pouille, 6-1, 2-6, 6-4, 3-6, 7-6 (5), with the Frenchman pulling off back-to-back-to-back five set wins to win his second major quarterfinal of the season and his career.
Looking nothing like the player who was a game from losing to 34-year-old Marco Chiudinelli a few days prior, Pouille stormed out ahead in the early going by painting lines in a first set that was over faster than one of his booming groundstrokes. When Pouille had cooled off and double faulted to end the second, it appeared Nadal was in control, but the underdog got the break to start the third and held onto it all the way through the set.
Nadal had to fight to maintain control of the fourth, but ultimately did to force a fifth set that many figured was his. And the conventional wisdom was right until Nadal’s break lead was lost for 4-all.
Though the match had descended from shotmaking spectacle into a nervy battle to survive, each player took care of business on serve to force the deciding tiebreaker, a quirk only seen at the U.S. Open and, as of this year, Davis Cup (Nadal hadn’t played a fifth set breaker since the epic 2006 Rome final against Roger Federer, the match that essentially ended the best-of-five format for Masters finals).
Pouille started off the breaker with a brutal forehand into the net, but Nadal returned the favor and was outplayed for the next few points, with Pouille’s winners going in whereas Nadal’s went out by just a sliver. The 14-time major champion showed his mettle by saving three match points, only to dump a potential winner forehand short at 6-all, which Pouille later said loosened him up to win the next point and the match.
The stunning result again spurred “What have you done for me lately?”-esque talk of Nadal and his future. In press, he began forlorn and clearly emotional over losing a golden opportunity, gradually transitioning into a subtly fiery reinforcement of the confidence he has in his current level and being able to accomplish the work he still has to do.
Often the best evaluator of his own game, he touched on the lack of rhythm on his serve and how his forehand wasn’t biting like in the first week of the tournament, saying, “In terms of energy, in terms of motivation, I was great. In terms of tennis, I need more. I needed to serve better in some moments. I needed to create more pain on the opponent with my shots, no?”
The race to plant the flag on Nadal’s decline and demise will remain vigilant, as it was last year (and in 2009, and in 2012), but the fact remains that he won a Masters 1000 event in Monte Carlo, could return to third in the world after the U.S. Open and is poised to stretch his streak of top five seasons to 12, provided good health. If the debate is in regards to if he’ll ever win another major, then compelling and complex arguments can be supplied for both sides of that discussion, but — just as with Federer — playing top level tennis and winning majors aren’t necessarily synonymous, nor should Grand Slam droughts necessitate calling it a career.
A great part of sports is that anyone can get hot on the right day (or two weeks, as Marin Cilic can attest). Pouille may play at a top-10 level on a consistent basis in the future, but no one could have seen this coming. As Nadal said, “He played well. That’s it. You know, I didn’t play bad, but I didn’t play enough well. He played well. That’s it.”
Like the saying goes, it not just who you play, but when you play them.
Also on Sunday
— Angie Kerber was all business to start the night session, well aware that even in a down season, Petra Kvitova is not an opponent you want to let hang around. Kerber rolled in an error-filled opening set by Kvitova and then broke to win the match when Kvitova donated her seventh double-fault of the match. For comparison, Kerber made just eight errors total in the 6-3, 7-5. Though the U.S. Open was the site of Kerber’s breakthrough in 2011, this is her first time back in the quarters since she made the semis five years ago. This win forces Serena Williams to make the final to retain the No. 1 ranking.
— Novak Djokovic was flawless after hardly playing since opening night…until another medical timeout for his right elbow early in the third set against Kyle Edmund. Djokovic was broken a couple times in that set, and though he managed to still win in straights, it appears that bundle of good fortune hasn’t quite cured what ails the top player in the world.
— Oftentimes, a narrow escape liberates a contender going forward (ex: Djokovic after his 100 error “win” over Gilles Simon in Australia this year), but there was no carryover for Madison Keys in a disappointing 6-3, 6-4 loss to a resurgent Caroline Wozniacki. Despite holding the superior serve, Keys was getting severely outplayed on return. Near the end of the match, ESPN’s graphic showed Wozniacki was getting 90 percent of first serve returns in play and 80 percent of seconds. Keys? 67 percent for both. It seems as if Keys hits just enough amazing return winners for her to justify the all-or-nothing approach that is so damaging.
Yet, that wasn’t even the stat of the day thanks to this gem:
Wozniacki beat one Top-10 player at slams during her 67-week tenure as World No.1. Now she beats two in 1 week when being ranked No.74.
— Oleg S. (@AnnaK_4ever) September 4, 2016
— 2015 finalist Roberta Vinci quietly returned to the quarters with an emotional win over Lesia Tsurenko. The first set tiebreaker was the pivot point, with Tsurenko leaning over after points and Vinci even more expressive than usual. Vinci narrowly took the breaker 7-5 and pulled away in the second.
— Gael Monfils somehow won four straight matches at a major without losing a set. One of only two men left to have not dropped a set (the other being Juan Martin del Potro through three matches), Monfils scored a straightforward win over Marcos Baghdatis. The only real point of intrigue in this one was Baghdatis being given a code violation for his phone going off during a changeover. La Monf next plays Pouille in an all-French quarterfinal.
— Jo-Willy Tsonga played a very composed match to take care of Jack Sock in four sets. Tsonga didn’t drop serve in the first two sets, breaking three times for a pair of 6-3s. Sock came to life in a spirited third set, coming up with some magic in the tiebreaker, including a rare backhand pass and a return winner. Tsonga kept plowing ahead though and sprinted to the finish in an uncomplicated 6-2 fourth. He’ll play Djokovic on Tuesday, surely in the night session.
— Despite a heavy case of nerves for her first Grand Slam quarterfinal, Anastasija Sevastova pulled off what was an under-the-radar big upset, knocking off Jo Konta, 6-4, 7-5. The 26-year-old will easily break her career-high ranking of 36, as she’ll jump from just inside the top 50 to 32 even if she goes no further in the tournament.
— The Bryan brothers came from a set down to beat Fernando Verdasco ad David Marrero, 7-5 in the third set.