NEW YORK—Ten years ago at what was then called the Nasdaq-100 Open, an 18-year-old Spaniard named Rafael Nadal made his debut to the U.S. tennis viewing audience. This was a time before networks like Tennis Channel and websites like ESPN3 made nearly every tournament, no matter how obscure or far away, easily accessible to fans. Until CBS broadcast that year’s final from the Miami Masters, Nadal was a name known only to the sport’s insiders.

What we saw in that that broadcast confirmed some of Nadal’s legend, which grew exponentially in the following years: That he was one of the game’s most exciting young talents who played a brand of tennis that no one, before or since, has been able to replicate. And he was already good enough to put the top-ranked player in the world, Roger Federer, in a two-set deficit.

On this day, the new kid on the block would have to wait his turn. Federer took the final three sets to win the title, but it was hard not to come away from that match feeling just as impressed about the loser, Nadal. Just a few months later at Roland Garros, Nadal would claim his first Grand Slam singles title, and he’d win at least one major per year over the next decade.

That streak has now come to an end, as Nadal, for the first time since that seminal Miami match, lost from two sets up, 3-6, 4-6, 6-4, 6-3, 6-4. It was Fabio Fognini who played the role of Federer—and trust me, some of the Italian’s groundstrokes were just as impressive as the young Swiss’—in the third round of the U.S. Open under the cover of night.

Down two sets, fabulous Fognini hands Nadal nearly unprecedented loss

Down two sets, fabulous Fognini hands Nadal nearly unprecedented loss

Advertising

Back then, Nadal wore shorts past his knees and a shirt sans sleeves. It’s pretty much the opposite now. Back then, Nadal exuded confidence and played a relentlessly offensive style, firing his forehand and attacking from every inch of the court. Against Fognini, I saw a much more defensive Nadal than usual, unable to back Fognini off the baseline and dictate with his speed and shotmaking.

Back then, Nadal’s loss from two sets up felt like a necessary growing pain. After this loss, it’s hard to come away feeling anything but concerned about Nadal’s future.

“The only thing that means is I played worse than the last 10 years,” Nadal said about his Slam-less season, now secured with the defeat. “Accept that was not my year and keep fighting till the end of the season to finish in a positive way for me.”

The only thing that may be more surprising than the fact that Nadal couldn’t hold such a large lead was how it evaporated. Nadal led his opponent by a break in both the third and fourth sets, but all the while Fognini was assuming control of the match’s terms. Through four sets he struck 50 winners, many without seemingly having to move at all. They say footwork is a prerequisite for success in tennis, but Fognini is the exception. He possesses the timing, racquet-hand speed, and belief to send pace back with remarkable acceleration.

“I was starting to feel the ball really good, believe me,” Fognini said after finishing with 70 winners (he also had 57 unforced errors). “I lost that first set 6-3, but I was say in my mind, ‘Okay, let's try, let's keeping working; do your tennis.’ With Rafa you have to try that.”

Fognini also took advantage of Nadal’s shots that landed short, of which there were many—the No. 8 seed’s contact never seemed crisp, especially when viewed from up close.

“If you hit the ball a bit shorter, the opponent has more space,” Nadal said. “If you hit the ball with a little bit of less confidence, then there is not as much topspin like used to be.”

Down two sets, fabulous Fognini hands Nadal nearly unprecedented loss

Down two sets, fabulous Fognini hands Nadal nearly unprecedented loss

Such timing problems also impacted Nadal’s serve. In sets four and five, Nadal won just 54 and 53 percent of his first-serve points, respectively, and in the third and fifth sets he won less than 20 percent of his second-serve points.

It all points to a crisis of confidence that has seemed to plague Nadal for the majority of this season. While healthier than he’s been in a while, Nadal is missing the most important ingredient to his game, and the one that’s the most difficult to rediscover. It’s persisted for so long that his loss to Feliciano Lopez in Cincinnati didn’t seem like much of a shock at all.

On the contrary, Fognini—who has now beaten Rafa three times in 2015—used his burgeoning confidence to stick with his assertive game plan, no matter what.

“It was not a match that I lost, even if I had opportunities,” Nadal said. “It’s a match that he wins.”

“Probably I make a lot of unforced errors, but it doesn't matter,” Fognini said. “With Rafa, you have to risk. You have to attack him when you have the chance. He is one of the best passing player in the world, if not the best.”

When Fognini hit enough of those winners and unforced errors to force a fifth set, it was time to see if the 32nd seed would be satisfied with his late-night rebound. He answered that question quickly, and at an unlikely juncture: With Nadal serving at 40-15 at 1-1, Fognini clocked two stone-cold winners that recalled Rafa conquerors past. It is usually a giant server or someone with massive artillery that can, with everything correctly aligned, hit enough big shots to upset Nadal on a given day. That Fognini is not in that mold speaks to the quality of his work and overall execution level tonight.

Fognini won the next two points to break serve, and then the men engaged in a game of hot potato. The break for 2-1 was the start of a seven-game run of service breaks. No lead was save—“I lost again incredible game on 4-3, 40-love,” said Fognini—until the flamboyant shotmaker ended the breaking pattern with a match-ending hold.

Advertising

Down two sets, fabulous Fognini hands Nadal nearly unprecedented loss

Down two sets, fabulous Fognini hands Nadal nearly unprecedented loss

A long day at Flushing Meadows came to an end at nearly 1:30 a.m., and a long season for Nadal suffered another damaging blow.

“I fighted until the last point all the time, good attitude,” a positive Nadal said. “Not enough to win today. I lost a couple matches this year like this. But the good thing is my mind allows me to fight until the end as I did during all my career. Sometimes this year I was not able to do that.

“I think I have a good base now. As I said, good thing is I am not playing terrible matches like I did at the beginning of the season. When I am losing, I am losing because the opponents beat me, not because I lose the match, as I did a lot of times at the beginning of the season.”

Confidence, as Federer said while enduring his worst season as a star in 2013, “takes care of all the things you don't usually think about.” Nadal and his fans would seem to have a lot to think about during the waning weeks of his worst season since 2005. Clearly, Federer has rediscovered it. It remains to be seen when Nadal will, and whether this year is an aberration, or an indication of something more dire.