It’s been a year of lows for Rafael Nadal, who has been refreshingly open about the confidence issues that have plagued his season. However for all the shock defeats, it’s hard to imagine that any will have left as much of a mental scar as the stunning loss to Italy’s Fabio Fognini.
From a seemingly unassailable 6-3, 6-4, 3-1* position, Nadal slumped to an incredible 5-set defeat (d. 6-3, 6-4, 4-6, 3-6, 4-6) in an epic match lasting just under 4 hours. Spanning his entire professional career, this is the first time Rafa has been defeated after holding a 2 sets to love lead (previously boasting a perfect record of 151-0 across Grand Slam and Davis Cup matches).
Certainly there would have been some trepidation from the Spaniard coming into this match, given the pain Fognini had already dished out to him this season. The Italian achieved the extremely rare feat of back to back clay court victories over Nadal, beating him in Rio and Barcelona (d. 1-6, 6-2, 7-5 & 6-4, 7-6(6)). Since then Nadal achieved some semblance of revenge with a closely fought and somewhat heated win in the final of Hamburg, representing just his third title of the season.
Despite these matches pointing a potential banana skin, the first hour and half’s play on Arthur Ashe suggested otherwise as the 14-time grand slam winner cruised to two sets to love and a break in the third. Admittedly it was consistency over the spectacular, still at times producing some strange and wayward errors particularly off the forehand wing. However, his flamboyant opponent was coughing up more than enough errors to make this look like a comfortable night’s work.
That was until the sixth game of the third set where the match took a huge u-turn. Nadal threw in a nervous, error strewn game as Fognini broke to love. Perhaps sensing some of the much publicised mental frailty of his opponent, the Italian became inspired producing a sustained period of some of the best shot-making you could ever wish to see. Floods of winners came off both sides as Fognini adopted a much more aggressive approach, seemingly dictating every point. An increasing stressed Nadal seemed to have no answers as the Arthur Ashe crowd roared in delight as the underdog took the match into a decider.
The fifth set was an epic in itself with Fognini three times up a break, only to be pegged back by an increasing dogged Nadal who was relying on all his battling qualities to stay alive. Aided by a few trademark fist pumps, the crowd support now shifted inevitably towards the two-time former champion, as for the first time the Italian seemed to become very conscious of the finishing line. To his credit though, he produced a scintillating game at 4-4 with four blazing winners; to give him what proved to be the pivotal break.
He finally held out to 30 in the tenth game to secure what is the biggest win of his career and to become the first Italian man in a decade to reach the 4th round of the U.S Open (Sanguinetti, 2005). As for Rafa, this defeat leaves plenty to contemplate and ensures it will be his first slamless year since 2004, his best result being a quarter final at Roland Garros. Although many will be quick to criticise, the plaudits really should go to Fognini, who is perhaps finally finding the mental fortitude to go with his undoubted talent.