Rafael Nadal seemed to be moving towards another straight-set win at the U.S. Open, this time against Fabio Fognini. His game was sharp, his forehand, the quintessence of forehands, his backhand had recovered its pop, and he was fistpumping like in his best days.
It is not that Fognini was playing badly. He just had a supreme Nadal in front of him, one who did not take long to be up by two sets and a break.
Then it all unravelled. The Italian found another gear and started peppering even more winners in the court, playing the lines to perfection and, to take the old cliché, seeing the ball like a beach ball. He took the third set, then the fourth, and then came a topsy-turvy fifth set, which kept everyone glued to their seats in the wee hours of the New York morning, when both players traded several breaks.
In the end, Fabio Fognini became the first man to ever defeat Nadal in a major after the Spaniard took a 2-0 lead, a 3-6, 4-6, 6-4, 6-3, 6-4 win in an epic 3h46 battle. A duel which Fognini finished with 70 winners (and 57 unforced errors). And for the first time in 10 years, it sent Nadal home without having won a major during a season.
Despite the defeat, Rafa could leave with the sentiment of having done all he could, of having fought until the bitter end, and paid credit to his rival:
“He played great. It was not a match that I lost, even if I had opportunities. It was a match that he won. So I accept it. I’m not happy that he played better than me, but that’s what happened. He played better than me, no? I didn’t play bad at all. I played a normal match, but it was not enough. So I’m not happy with that. But I accept that he was better than me today.
“I fought until the last point all the time, I had a good attitude. It was not enough to win today. I lost a couple of matches like that this year. But the good thing is that my mind allowed me to fight until the end as I did during all my career. Sometimes this year I was not able to do that. So I am happy with that. I enjoyed the crowd. There was an amazing support out there. It’s just a very special feeling be out there with that support. I enjoyed that. I tried to fight until the last ball. I believe I did, but it was not enough today.”
Nevertheless, this raises several questions.
Nadal is physically fit and playing without any injury whatsoever. Yet he seems a step slower than in the last few years. His immense fighting spirit is ever present, yet he does not seem to be able to sustain the rhythm during some matches. There need only be a player like Fognini on the other end, one who can take the opportunities offered when they present themselves, one who plays the match of his life, and things can turn from the way of a solid win to a difficult defeat.
But what can he do at this point? He is close, yes, but something does not click. Should he do as he says and keep on working hard and wait until the click happens?
And what if that click never comes?
Should he change some things in his entourage, in his methods? Bring outside help to work alongside his team, like Roger Federer and Novak Djokovic did? After all, perhaps the input of an outsider would help him…
In the end, only Rafa Nadal will know what is best for him at this point…