NEW YORK – Two forehands made, not missed, and Rafael Nadal would have had at least a silver medal at the Olympics in Rio and very likely would be playing Gaël Monfils in the US Open quarter-finals on Tuesday.
Two forehands missed, and Nadal left Rio without a medal of any colour and on Sunday in New York, exited the US Open after a 6-1, 2-6, 6-4, 3-6, 7-6 (6) loss to 22-year-old Frenchman Lucas Pouille.
The wayward forehand in Rio against Juan Martin del Potro in the semi-finals came at 6-5 in the deciding tiebreak after Nadal had fought so hard to stay in what may go down as the craziest, most dramatic three-set match on the men’s side this season.
On Sunday, in the fourth round at the US Open and with far less at stake – relatively speaking – Nadal had a forehand at 6-6 in the fifth-set tiebreak, as the match began its fifth hour and he had already saved three match points. He missed it badly into the net.
Moments later, after a huge forehand winner of his own, Pouille was lying on the court with the biggest win of his career in the books. He is Frenchman into the quarterfinals here, the first time that has happened at a Grand Slam tournament since the heady days of the original Mousquetaires in 1927.
“Was a big mistake, yeah. But you are 6-all in the tiebreak. I played the right point. I put me in a position to have the winner and I had the mistake. That's it. You cannot go crazy thinking about these kind of things, no? You have a mistake. The opponent played a good point in the match point, and that's it,” Nadal said. “The problem is arrive to 6-all on the tiebreak of the fifth. I should be winning before. When you have 4-3, 30-love, when you are there, is 50 per cent. This time again is not on my side.”
There were other forehands missed, even in that deciding tiebreak, which was watched by a big crowd inside Arthur Ashe Stadium and another nearly 25,000 fans waiting outside for the delayed night session to begin.
As encouraging as Nadal’s comeback has been after wrist issues took him out of the French Open before he played his third-round match, that forehand has been the Spaniard’s story in recent years. The devastating weapon that won him so much hardware has failed countless times. He can’t depend on it the way he used to, and his search for alternate solutions came up a little short on this day.
“At this time I was, ‘Okay, you have to save a match point. I couldn't believe he would miss it. But, you know, he's like every players. He feel the pressure as well. Even if he's one of the best, he feel the pressure,” Pouille said. “It's a tough one to make at this time. Then when he missed it, of course was very happy. I can't say anything else.”
Nadal was up an early break in that fifth set, and it seemed that a brilliantly-played match was going to go the way of the more decorated player.
“When you are 4-3 in the fifth, 30-love, is not a question of experience, no? Is a question of play a little bit better than what I did. That's it. A couple of mistakes there. Needed to play with a little bit more calm. Is true that I don't have lot of matches on my shoulders for the last three, four months, but even like this I lost an opportunity. That's the real thing, no? That's the true. I lost an opportunity to have a very good event here. I am sad for that,” Nadal said. “But I fighted. I can play better. I can play worse. The only thing that cannot be bad is the attitude, no? Today the attitude was great. That's it.”
Pouille has long been considered an up-and-comer, a gifted all-court player whose only downside may be the lack of that one outstanding weapon. But as the new crew of French mousquetaires ages – Tsonga, Monfils, Simon, Gasquet – there are concerns back in their homeland that there wasn’t a next wave to come.
Pouille appears to be pretty much it; that said, Tsonga and Monfils have joined him in the final eight here. So perhaps the urgency isn’t quite there yet.
As he was breaking into the top 100 for the first time at the end of last season, Pouille upped his game. He moved to Dubai during the off-season and with that came an opportunity to practice with Roger Federer, to see firsthand how hard the Swiss star still worked even after all his success. He also hired a full-time physical trainer.
Pouille began the 2016 season with two routine losses to Canadian Milos Raonic – straight sets in Brisbane to start the season, and in three straight sets in the first round of the Australian Open.
Different opponent, of course; different matchup from the one with Nadal. But Pouille wasn’t nearly as bold and aggressive when he had opportunities in those matches as he was Sunday against Nadal. Pouille also lost in the first round of the ATP Tour event in Dubai to Raonic’s countryman Vasek Pospisil.
Ranked No. 25 coming into the US Open, Pouille was only 21-16 in singles on the season although he has scored some quality scalps: David Ferrer in Miami, Richard Gasquet in Monte Carlo, David Goffin in Madrid, Ferrer again in Rome, and Juan Marin del Potro and Bernard Tomic at Wimbledon.
“I think because mentally I'm stronger, physically I'm stronger, gave me a lot of confidence before the match. I knew if I wanted to win that, it's not going to be like three sets, 6-1, 6-2, 6-2. It would be long. So I was ready for it. I think I was 100 per cent before the match,” said Pouille, who practiced with Nadal before the start of the tournament.
He tried to return Nadal’s serve standing right on the baseline during that workout and quickly realized out that if his returns weren’t perfect, Nadal would crush him with, yes, the forehand. So he adjusted that for the match.
It might still have gone Nadal's way, and perhaps it should have. Except Pouille attacked, he stayed firm, he continued to believe. And he played lights-out tennis.
There have been a multitude of five-set epics on the men’s side during this US Open, many comebacks from two sets to none down, many late-night marathons. But when one of the very best is involved, as was the case Sunday, it takes on a different sheen somehow. It’s like the whole tournament goes on pause to see how it all shakes out.
With the new roof on Arthur Ashe Stadium, even when it’s open, the noise inside has been cacophonous with every random conversation from the well-heeled (and well-oiled) patrons reverberating around the massive bowl. For this one, it was quiet for long periods as the fans held their breath. By the end, it was bedlam.
“Sometimes I couldn't even hear myself when I was saying, ‘Allez, allez, allez!’ Sometimes you can't even hear yourself,” Pouille said.
For Nadal, it’s back to the drawing board but unlike a year ago, he goes there with a lot more optimism and hope because he says he’s nearly back to 100 per cent physically after his wrist issues.
But the truth is that this is the first year since 2004 that he will not have reached the quarterfinals at any of the four majors after a first-round loss in Australia, a withdrawal during the French Open and a no-show at Wimbledon because of his wrist.
“Is a painful defeat because I believe myself, I feel myself ready for that match, ready for the tournament. That's it. We can find stories, but I lost. That's the only thing that really matter now. I going to fight to change that. But is not less painful or more painful. Is a defeat. Is not the first one in my career; is not going to be for sure the last,” he said. “I'm happy to be playing again. That's the most important thing. I'm happy that I feel myself again close to be hundred per cent healthy.
“If I am 100 per cent healthy, I have the energy to keep going. I believe that I can have a couple of more good years,” he said.
Pouille will keep going; he will play Monfils on Tuesday.