Rafael Nadal clenched his fists and roared on the U.S. Open on Monday.
He had just broken Frances Tiafoe’s serve to take a 3-1 lead within the fourth set, reclaiming the momentum against an inspired, much younger American opponent who had cracked before with a significant upset in reach.
It looked, from long and up to date experience, as if Nadal was teeing up one other comeback victory in a profession defined by in-the-moment grit.
But an odd thing happened on the approach to one other revival. Nadal lost his serve and his way in the subsequent game under the closed roof of Arthur Ashe Stadium, and though he still scrapped and whipped his trademark topspin forehand, he was ultimately unable to avoid an unpleasant fourth-round surprise.
He wouldn’t win one other game as Tiafoe, who had never won a set against him of their previous two matches, prevailed, 6-4, 4-6, 6-4, 6-3.
“I played a foul match, and he played a superb match, and at the tip, that’s it, no?” Nadal said at a news conference afterward. “I used to be not capable of hold a high level of tennis for a very long time. I used to be not enough quick on my movements. He was capable of take the ball too again and again very early, so I used to be not capable of push him back.”
As Nadal, cleareyed in victory and defeat, identified, tennis matches often come all the way down to court position.
Tiafoe spent many of the match on or contained in the baseline, taking quick cuts and ending with 49 winners. Nadal spent an excessive amount of of the match well behind the baseline, sprinting to the corners and lunging to increase rallies (or not). His game lacked spark and depth.
If you happen to lose the battle of position, Nadal said, “you’ll want to be very, very quick and really young.”
Then Nadal, 36, smiled, not because he was content but because he had arrange his next line.
“I’m not in that moment anymore,” he said.
This was Nadal’s earliest defeat at a significant tournament in greater than five years and the primary time he had been beaten in any major in 2022, an odd and potent brew of a season filled with unexpected joy and pain.
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This could go down as one in all Nadal’s best campaigns, not his most complete season however the yr he took the lead over his longtime rivals Roger Federer and Novak Djokovic within the chase to complete with essentially the most Grand Slam singles titles.
Nadal won his twenty first on the Australian Open and his twenty second on the French Open and got here inside striking range of his twenty third at Wimbledon before an abdominal injury forced him to retire before the semifinals.
That injury cost him preparation time ahead of the U.S. Open. He played only one official match before Latest York, losing to Borna Coric within the round of 32 eventually month’s Western and Southern Open.
But Nadal, so acquainted with the comeback trail, was capable of train with full intensity in Ohio, pushing himself on the practice courts with coaches Marc Lopez and Francisco Roig and doing the identical in Latest York after Carlos Moya, the lead member of his coaching team, arrived.
Nadal has triumphed without ideal preparation throughout 2022. He arrived in Australia in January having played just one official tournament within the previous seven months due to chronic foot condition that has troubled him, on and off, since his late teens.
But he worked his way into the Australian Open and rallied from a two-set deficit to defeat Daniil Medvedev in a 5 hour 24 minute test of endurance and resilience in the ultimate.
“If we put the whole lot together, the scenario, the momentum, what it means,” he said in Melbourne, long after midnight, “yeah, indubitably probably have been the largest comeback of my tennis profession.”
He kept rolling, winning 20 straight matches in all before sustaining a freak injury in March within the semifinals of the BNP Paribas Open in Indian Wells, Calif., on a blustery afternoon against a much younger Spanish star, Carlos Alcaraz.
In an intense, physical duel through which last-second swing adjustments were often essential within the high winds, Nadal sustained a stress fracture in his rib cage. Though he someway reached the ultimate, losing to Taylor Fritz, the brand new injury cut short his preparation for his beloved clay-court season.
When he returned, his foot pain resurfaced. After losing to Denis Shapovalov on the Italian Open in mid-May, he looked as gloomy as he had ever looked within the aftermath of a defeat, talking openly and grimly concerning the prospect of tennis now not being definitely worth the trouble or the pain.
But after mulling retirement for the second time in a yr, Nadal found a way — with the assistance of standard painkilling injections — to win his 14th French Open. Then he found a approach to resolve the pain on a longer-term basis by undergoing a procedure through which radio waves were used to deaden the nerves in his foot before Wimbledon.
“After all Tiafoe is playing more solid than before, serving well I believe today, taking the ball very early,” Nadal said. “Good backhands. He’s quick, as everybody knows. But I don’t think I pushed him enough to create in him the doubts that I want to create. Tennis is at all times a balance. When anyone’s not playing that well, it’s easier that the opponent plays higher. If my ball isn’t a high-quality ball, then he’s capable of do his game much easier.”
After winning the 2019 U.S. Open — in one other gritty five-set final against Medvedev — Nadal sat courtside and cried in Arthur Ashe Stadium as he watched a video tribute that showed footage of his 19 major victories.
His count is now as much as 22, one ahead of Djokovic, who won the Wimbledon title this yr but who, as a foreigner unvaccinated for the coronavirus, was not permitted to enter america to participate on this U.S. Open.
As within the pandemic yr of 2020, when Nadal and Federer were absent in Latest York and Djokovic was defaulted after striking a ball and inadvertently hitting a lineswoman within the throat, there will probably be no member of the Big Three in the ultimate eight on the U.S. Open.
“Fifteen minutes after losing on the last Grand Slam tournament of the yr, the whole lot is dark, but that’s normal,” Nadal said in Spanish. “Then time passes and there’s no solution but to proceed, and ultimately, I do know I even have the inside strength to do it.”
Nadal and his wife Maria Francisca expect their first child later this yr, but for now, the Big Three plan to reassemble later this month, competing for Team Europe within the Laver Cup in London, together with Andy Murray. However the path to the more prestigious title in Latest York is now open to a different generation of contenders, including the 27-year-old Kyrgios and 24-year-old Tiafoe.
“It’s cool to see a recent era,” Tiafoe said on Monday.
It isn’t quite here in earnest: Djokovic, 35, just won Wimbledon and can presumably be hungry for more success if he can play a fuller schedule in 2023. Nadal holds two of the 4 majors and can reclaim the No. 1 rating at age 36 if neither Alcaraz nor the young Norwegian Casper Ruud reach the U.S. Open final.
But a recent era is unquestionably on the horizon. Consider this tournament — and days like Monday — a sneak preview.