NEW YORK—When Rafael Nadal and Lucas Pouille turned into the homestretch of their five-set epic at the U.S. Open on Sunday, everything—stats, talent, experience, logic—should have pointed to a Rafa victory. He was the 14-time Grand Slam champion, and a man who had reached No. 1 in the world by extricating himself from countless situations just like this one, against opponents far more legendary. Pouille, on the other hand, was the 22-year-old novice who had yet to crack the Top 20, who had reached the quarterfinals at a major just once, and who was playing his first-ever match in the intimidating confines of Arthur Ashe Stadium.
And yet, if you’ve been following Nadal’s career over the last two years—as he turned 30 and stopped reaching the final weekend at Slams—some doubt about his ability to close this one out probably crept into your mind. This story had become a little too familiar for Nadal fans.
There was the loss from two sets up to Fabio Fognini at Flushing Meadows in 2015. There was the first-round, five-set defeat to Fernando Verdasco at the Australian Open this year. There was the loss in a third-set tiebreaker to Juan Martin del Potro in the semifinals in Rio, with a chance at a gold medal on the line. There were the many hard-fought but ultimately unsuccessful efforts against Novak Djokovic over the last two years. Rafa has come a long way with his game during that time—back into the Top 5—and this summer he returned quickly enough from a wrist injury to have an excellent week at the Olympics. But the finish line, in the biggest matches, has often proved to be one step—or one winner—too far for him.
And it was again in his 6-1, 2-6, 6-4, 3-6, 7-6 (6) loss to Pouille. From the beginning, this matchup was a challenge for Nadal, especially on the DecoTurf at the Open. The Frenchman has all the traditional attributes of a Rafa nemesis. He’s tall enough—6’1”—to handle Nadal’s topspin. He has a strong serve and a two-handed backhand, and is a natural attacker. He can hit through the court with his forehand. And as he showed in his 63 forays to the net, he can move forward when necessary.
What we couldn’t know coming in was how intelligently Pouille would play. His tactics, like his skills, were perfectly suited to Nadal. On big points, Pouille took a little off his serve and spun it out to Nadal’s backhand side (in both the deuce and ad courts). On his return, Pouille stood well back in the court, giving himself plenty of time to counter the angles Nadal was creating with his new, wider service position; in four hours of play, Rafa hit just one ace.
Most important, from the baseline, Pouille didn’t fall into the trap of feeling like he needed to redline every shot, or pull the trigger as soon as possible. Sometimes Pouille would work the ball high to Rafa’s backhand and move forward, and then change speeds and go for the kill. Other times, when he got a short ball that was a little low, he would roll a backhand into the corner instead of trying to force a winner. With his natural power, it was usually good enough. “Redlining with margin” may sound like a logical impossibility, but Pouille managed.
“I think he played a good match,” Nadal said of Pouille. “He started so strong.”
This five-setter, which was the contest of the tournament so far, was a series of thrusts and parries. Pouille came out on fire, looking like the faster, stronger and younger player. But Nadal came up with an equally strong response in the second set. By the end of that set, Rafa had Ashe rocking; but after leaving the court between sets, he lost his momentum. Pouille broke in the opening game and held out for the third set.
When Nadal responded again in the fourth, Pouille’s game, which had been wired so tightly, began to fray. When Rafa went up 4-2 in the fifth, it seemed that the young Frenchman, who was playing his third straight five-setter, was finally going to succumb to the legendary Spaniard. Instead, Pouille may have been steeled by his previous two five-set wins, and Nadal may have remembered his five-set defeats at recent Slams.
Nadal hit every spectacular shot in the book during this match. No-look backhand overheads. No-look short-angle volleys. Stab volleys off his shoe-tops. Forehand winners crosscourt and down the line. Reflexed lobs over his opponent’s head. He fist pumped and “Vamos!”ed and leg kicked and worked the crowd into a frenzy. But he couldn’t make the routine shot, and he couldn’t win the rallies he needed most.
Up 4-3, 30-0 in the fifth, Rafa gave back two points with backhand unforced errors. With a break point at 4-4, he nervously pushed another backhand into the net. And at 6-6 in the deciding tiebreaker, after saving three match points and watching the crowd rise one more time, he drilled a put-away forehand into the tape. I thought he changed his mind at the last second when he tried to go behind Pouille, but I can’t say I was shocked by the error. It reminded me of the put-away forehand that Rafa missed at match point in the third-set tiebreaker against Del Potro in Rio.
“Was a big mistake, yeah,” Nadal said. “...I played the right point. I put me in a position to have the winner, and I had the mistake. That’s it.”
Nadal, who turned 30 in June, has not reached the quarterfinals of a major since last year’s French Open, and has not won one since the French in 2014. The last time he had played a fifth-set tiebreaker was in the Rome final in 2006. That day he edged Roger Federer 7-5; 10 years later he lost to Lucas Pouille 8-6. This, as difficult as it may be to accept, is the natural course of long tennis careers.
Still, compared to 2015, Nadal says he feels better about his game and himself.
“This year I didn’t have one mental problem,” he said ton Sunday. “I was able to enjoy every practice. I was able to enjoy every match. Last year, not. Last year for seven, eight months something strange [happened] in my mind. I was playing with stress. I was anxious. I didn’t enjoy ... [Now] I’m enjoying every moment.”
Yet from the start of his press conference, Rafa seemed to understand that it still wasn’t enough, that he was missing something that he had once had.
“I fight until the end,” he said of his effort against Pouille. “There were things I could do better. Had the right attitude. I [fought] right up to the last ball.
“But I need something else. I need something more that was not there today.”
Rafa’s words reminded me of another moment from 2006, in Miami. There he talked about using all “six” of his senses. When he was reminded that there are only five, Rafa was undaunted: He said he would find a sixth anyway.
In many ways, over the next decade, he did. Few players have ever found their way through so many close matches and anxious moments. He really did seem to have a sixth sense for winning.
Can Nadal get back at 30 what he discovered at 20? Can he start to make the routine shots as well as the spectacular, and win the points he needs at the moments he needs them? For now, all we know is what Rafa told us on Sunday:
“I [am] going to keep trying to find.”
What else can any tennis player do at 30? After all, it has always been the trying, as much as the finding, that has made Rafa what he is.