“It’s a toxic mix for Rafa at the moment,” the commentator who was calling the first-round match between Rafael Nadal and Lucas Pouille in Beijing said. “The combination of rust and Pouille playing out of his skin.”
These words were spoken at the start of the second-set tiebreaker. The Frenchman had won the first set 6-4 and had seemed destined to win the second as well. He had yet to drop serve, and had mostly dictated the proceedings; Nadal, for his part, had spent most of his time scrambling in defense. Only a few resourceful serves and forehands on crucial points had kept Rafa alive.
But even the standard Nadal all-out effort didn’t appear to be enough on this day. Pouille jumped ahead in the tiebreaker 3-1 on a pair of big forehands. He jumped ahead again 5-3 with an ace and a forehand winner. Finally, he reached match point at 6-4 with yet another forehand winner. When Pouille slammed down a first serve and came forward for a sitter forehand, Nadal’s seven-match win streak looked to be at an end.
But Rafa guessed that Pouille, who had hit his last forehand winner down the line, was going to go there again. Pouille may have seen Rafa move out of the corner of his eye, because he did something he hadn’t done all afternoon: He drilled that easy forehand into the net. Pouille’s chance, it turned out, had come and gone. Nadal saved another match point with a nicely carved backhand volley and won the tiebreaker 8-6.
Despite that disappointment, Pouille still refused to be broken. The two men remained neck and neck through the first 10 games of the third set, with the Frenchman throwing the first blows in the rallies, and the Spaniard finding ways to punch back when necessary. Finally, serving at 5-5, Pouille misfired. At 0-15, he had an overhead to end the point, but again Nadal guessed right and delivered a point-winning forehand pass down the line for 0-30. Here, after two and a half hours, was Rafa’s opening. He seized it with one of his best crosscourt backhands of the day, broke at love, and held at 15 for a hard-fought, entertaining, 4-6, 7-6 (6), 7-5, win over the man who had beaten him in a similarly razor-close match at the US Open last year.
“He had two match points, one of them with an easy forehand, more or less,” Nadal said of Pouille. “But it’s like this. I remember the match against him at the US Open, I had 6-all in the tiebreak, an easy forehand I missed at the net, too. That time was for him, today was for me.”
Nadal says he doesn’t play for revenge. He’s already competitive enough; no need to add extra fuel to the fire. But his win over Pouille was the latest in what you might call his revenge tour of 2017. It began in the Australian Open semifinals, with his victory over Grigor Dimitrov, the man who had beaten him in Beijing last season. From there, Nadal turned the tables on a series of players who had beaten him on big occasions in recent years: Fernando Verdasco, Fabio Fognini, Dominic Thiem, Nick Kyrgios, Stan Wawrinka, Juan Martin del Potro, and most importantly, Novak Djokovic. Now he’s knocked off the last man to beat him at the US Open, Pouille.
Every top player, including Nadal, reaches a point where they start to lose to people they’ve never lost to before. But Rafa, like his friend Roger Federer, has now reached the point where he’s beating those same people again. Sometimes, like Nadal said, the difference is just one missed sitter on a crucial point. But the fact that he was on the winning side of that miss today, rather than the losing, is all you need to know about why Nadal’s 2017 has been so much different from his 2016.
As the commentator in Beijing, who had been so skeptical an hour earlier, said of Nadal when the match was over: “He just does not know how to lose right now.”