Rafael Nadal’s grand slam campaign ended late Sunday night with a fifth-set tiebreak defeat to young Frenchman Lucas Pouille.
In a thrilling showdown that lasted more than four hours, the pair produced the kind of all-court tennis that will make it a strong contender for match of the year honours when the season comes to a close in a couple of months.
It was a match that had everything. Unthinkable gets, huge winners, seesawing momentum shifts, heartbreaking misses… it was the kind of epic battle typically associated with a warrior like Nadal.
But it’s also one a vintage Nadal would never have lost.
Instead, the Spanish 14-time grand slam champion succumbed to the immensely talented, yet less experienced, Pouille.
The 22-year-old Frenchman fought from a break down in the fifth to force a tiebreak. Nadal saved three match points to take the breaker to 6-all.
Then came a telling moment that could haunt Nadal for quite some time.
After setting himself up for a routine forehand up front that would have given him a match point, the Spaniard dumped the ball in the net.
He covered his face in disbelief and so did the millions who were watching around the world.
Pouille couldn’t believe it either, but he did not hesitate, converting on his fourth match point for the biggest victory of his career and a place in the quarter-finals for a second consecutive major.
The good news for Nadal is that he was as fired up as ever, a stark contrast to how he competed last season.
“I had the right attitude. I fighted right up to the last ball,” he said after the match.
That is definitely true. But Nadal refused to chalk up his mistake at 6-6 in the tiebreak to pressure.
“After winning 14 (slams) and being in semi-finals a lot of times, you feel that’s pressure?” Nadal fired back at a reporter who noted that the Spaniard’s results at the majors have been weaker than at regular tournaments recently, which might perhaps mean he is feeling more pressure at the slams.
“In 30 years, after having the career that I have, (it) is not a question of pressure.”
Several top players have admitted to feeling extra pressure the older they got, as they become more and more aware of how less time they have left on tour.
Nadal called his defeat to Pouille on Sunday a “lost opportunity” and he must know that such opportunities are coming by less frequently and that the clock is ticking.
While Nadal is miles away from the hesitant, unhappy figure he portrayed last season, the fact remains that he has not made it past the quarter-finals in the last 10 majors (he didn’t play two of them and retired injured from a third).
His last grand slam victory came over two years ago at the French Open, so it’s only natural to feel pressure at crucial stages at the majors nowadays.
And with several talented players rising through the ranks, à la Pouille, Nadal will need to find a way to get back his peak mental strength that helped him win all those majors throughout his career, because mistakes like the one he made in the breaker will no longer cut it.
This is the 1st year since 2004 Rafael Nadal has not reached the quarterfinal at a Grand Slam in a calendar year. pic.twitter.com/j48TSJQxt4— SportsCenter (@SportsCenter) September 4, 2016
His passion for the sport remains burning bright, which is the most important thing.
Nadal has set a goal for himself to fight for a place in the end-of-season ATP World Tour Finals, and that will help him stay motivated in the upcoming period.
He is now at No6 in the ATP Race to London, which is remarkable considering he missed over two months of action due to his wrist injury.
Booking a spot in London could prove the right catalyst for 2017, the same way that worked for Andy Murray when he was coming back from back surgery two years ago.
As for Dubai-resident Pouille, he has done enough this season to prove he is an exciting prospect.
He’s got that French flair mixed with some ice-cold Scandinavian nerves (his mother is Finnish) that allow him to pull out back-to-back aces while serving for a set against someone like Nadal, and paint the line with a forehand winner to seal a stunning victory on Arthur Ashe stadium. The top 10 beckons.