US Open 2015: Fabio Fognini fires up to deny Rafael Nadal with late-night flourish

Rafael Nadal suffers a surprise five-set loss to Fabio Fognini in the third round of the US Open

It was first Friday at the biggest Grand Slam of the year, the stage in the draw that brings together the seeds for the first time, the night when Labor Day weekend opens its doors to a New York in party mood.

The schedule was as hot as the temperature, and brought the first truly packed-out session: Flushing Meadows was ready for action, ready for fun, ready to be thrilled by its high-octane favourites.

Serena Williams took on fellow American, Bethanie Mattek-Sands, and got the Arthur Ashe arena pumped up by dropping the first set before digging deep to join her elder sister in the fourth round, 3-6, 7-5, 6-0. It was the perfect start.

And despite the upsets of the early days this week, all but three of the 16 seeds in both halves of the men’s draw were present and correct. But that did not prevent a few more thrills and spills on Grandstand and Louis Armstrong. Defending champion Marin Cilic came through by the skin of his teeth in five sets against unseeded Mikhail Kukushkin. No7 seed David Ferrer succumbed to No27 seed Jeremy Chardy in four. Then No10 Milos Raonic lost to the resurgent 33-year-old No18 seed Feliciano Lopez in straight sets.

But when it came to the last match of the night, as New York hit 10pm, the 20,000 who rose skywards from the edge of Arthur Ashe’s show court had high expectations. It boasted two of the most charismatic men on the tour, No8 seed Rafael Nadal and No32 Fabio Fognini in their fourth meeting this year.

The back story was compelling: Nadal was returning from the slings and arrows of a 2014 season that had denied him the chance to defend his 2013 title here.

His return from injury and appendicitis, however, had not gone as smoothly as expected. He struggled to regain both form and confidence, and although he arrived here with three titles, none was at the elite level and none was over a top-five player.

So the tag ‘first time’ began to appear with monotonous regularity: his first time outside the top eight in a decade, the first time he failed to win one of the clay Masters in Rome, Madrid or Monte Carlo in a decade, his first loss at Roland Garros since 2009, his first loss to a number of fellow players—Raonic, Michael Berrer—and Fognini. For the Italian beat Nadal in both Rio and Barcelona this year, though Nadal did avenge those losses by beating him in the Hamburg final.

But despite Nadal’s solitary match-win on grass this summer, and just three wins through Montreal and Cincinnati, he had looked good in his opening New York matches. And when he produced some spectacular tennis to take the first two sets against Fognini, it seemed like old times. He sweated, he pumped, he powered, and he responded time and again to some flamboyant shot-making from the Italian.

Leading 6-3, 6-4, he had made fewer winners than the Italian, 12 to 21, but he had made only seven errors to 22 from Fognini.

So confident were the crowds that they poured from of the stadium for some refreshment, perhaps to carry on their holiday celebrations elsewhere, confident in the belief that Nadal was on his way to the fourth round.

How wrong they were. This match had another two hours left in it, three more sets, and by 1.30am, the headlines would be listing another string of ‘first times’: the first time Nadal had lost a match after leading two sets to love; the first time in a decade he would end a year without a Grand Slam title; the first time he had failed to reach the fourth round of the Open in a decade; his first loss in New York since the 2011 final.

However, this would not be down to Nadal losing but rather Fognini winning with three sets of top quality, attacking, creative tennis to claim victory, 3-6, 4-6, 6-4, 6-3, 6-4.

For here was a match designed for the word ‘pulsating’, a 3hr 46min contest that saw Fognini strike 70 winners to Nadal’s 30, yet saw Nadal make only 18 unforced errors in the match. Here was a contest that comprised 306 points but separated the two players by just two. It saw Nadal attack the net 22 times to win 19 points, but saw Fognini win 39 from 54 in the front of the court.

Nadal even had the advantage in the third set, breaking in the third game and serving to love for 3-1. Now, though, Fognini unleashed a forehand to open and a backhand to close out the fifth game to love for the break back. He did the same to break for the set, drawing a rare error from Nadal.

Even now, Nadal grabbed back the advantage as the clock hit midnight, breaking through a tense nine-minute opening game in the fourth. But with the bit between his teeth—and no doubt memories of those two victories earlier in the year—Fognini went on the rampage, broke back with a deft cross-court volley, broke again with a sizzling attack in the eighth, and served it out to level the match.

With the remaining crowds corralled down to the lower levels, the atmosphere at courtside was intense. And the vocal fans would be treated to a rollercoaster climax as the two men exchanged seven breaks before Fognini surged to the finish line. He broke in the ninth with four crisp winners, and served out one final gripping game for a famous victory.

Fognini afterwards explained that his high-risk attacking tennis was essential to beat Nadal: “If you want to play against him and if you want to do something different, you have to take risks. That’s the only thing. Probably I make a lot of unforced errors, but it doesn’t matter. You have to do that with a great player who runs a lot on the baseline.”

Nadal was gracious in defeat, even stopping to sign for the fans on his way to the lonely corridors beneath Arthur Ashe, where cameras caught his slow progress, head bowed, to the locker room and thence home.

“He played great. It was not a match that I lost, even if I had opportunities. It’s a match that he won. I’m not happy that he played better than me, but that’s what happened. I didn’t play bad at all. I played a normal match, but it wasn’t enough.”

He also saw positives to take away with him: “The nerves, the anxiety that I had for a long time this season, meant I was not able to fight the way that I was fighting today. So it is an improvement for me. I take that as a positive thing and I know what I have to do.”

Fognini now takes on another Spaniard cast from a very different mould, the serve-and-volleying Lopez: It will be their first ever meeting. And the reward for the winner is likely to be the world No1, Novak Djokovic, who has yet to drop a set. It is a far from enviable prospect.

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