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Nadal falters late, loses to Pouille in US Open’s 4th round

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NEW YORK — Rafael Nadal kept making a stand, kept coming back, kept showing he would not depart quietly from this U.S. Open. Facing a much younger, much-less-accomplished opponent, Nadal twice erased a set deficit. Then he staved off a trio of match points.

And then, more than 4 hours into the toughest test he’s put his left wrist through since returning from injury, Nadal faltered. He missed a short forehand, pushing it into the net. Nadal knew what he’d done and covered his eyes with both hands. One point later, the match was over.

Nadal was upset in the U.S. Open’s fourth round by 24th-seeded Lucas Pouille of France 6-1, 2-6, 6-4, 3-6, 7-6 (6) on Sunday, prolonging the 14-time Grand Slam title winner’s quarterfinal drought at major tournaments.

The No. 4-seeded Nadal, a two-time champion at Flushing Meadows, breezed through his opening three matches in Week 1 at the hard-court tournament, dropping only 20 games combined. But Pouille, a 22-year-old with flashy strokes, presented a much greater challenge in the fourth round, pushing Nadal to the limit through entertaining, tense – and intense – exchanges.

This was Pouille’s third career victory in a five-setter – and all have come in his past three matches.

Since losing in last year’s French Open quarterfinals, Nadal has failed to make it beyond the fourth round at a major.

This season, he lost in the first round of the Australian Open. Then he pulled out of the French Open before his third-round match because of a torn tendon sheath in his left wrist, an injury that forced him to withdraw from Wimbledon altogether and miss about 2 1/2 months on tour in all.

After finally pulling even with Pouille by capturing the fourth set, Nadal appeared to nose ahead by breaking to open the fifth, then going ahead 4-2. But Pouille broke back to 4-all.

Soon enough, they were in the tiebreaker, with Pouille holding his first three match points at 6-3.

Nadal wouldn’t concede yet, though, and one forehand winner by him plus two tight forehands by Pouille made it 6-all. Anyone’s match to win.

Given their relative histories – Pouille never had been to a Grand Slam quarterfinal until Wimbledon this year – Nadal might have been considered the favorite at that moment.

But he blinked. Pouille played conservatively, hitting short shots and making sure they landed in. On one such seemingly easy ball to exploit, Nadal moved forward and whipped that big forehand of his, only to see his reply smack the net.

That made it 7-6 in the tiebreaker, Pouille’s fourth match point, and he would not let this one slip away. On the 16th stroke of this exchange, Pouille delivered a forehand winner to a corner.

When it ended, Pouille dropped on his back, his tongue sticking out. As he rose, eyes wide – and tongue still wagging – 1983 French Open champion Yannick Noah of France, whose son Joakim recently joined the New York Knicks, spread around high-fives in the stands.

On Tuesday, Pouille will face 10th-seeded Gael Monfils of France for a spot in the quarterfinals.

Monfils advanced with a 6-3, 6-2, 6-3 victory over 2006 Australian Open runner-up Marcos Baghdatis, who received a warning for unsportsmanlike conduct for using his cellphone during a second-set changeover. Baghdatis defended himself to the chair umpire by asking whether it was against the rules to check the time; later, speaking to a handful of reporters, he said he was trying to message his wife.

Monfils is quite a character himself: In the middle of one point Sunday, he pretended to lean over to tie a shoelace before quickly resuming play.

The other quarterfinal on that side of the draw will feature yet another Frenchman, No. 9 Jo-Wilfried Tsonga, against the winner of Sunday night’s last match in Ashe, between No. 1 Novak Djokovic and 84th-ranked Kyle Edmund of Britain.

Tsonga got there by eliminating the last American man in the field, No. 26 Jack Sock, 6-3, 6-3, 6-7 (7), 6-2.

Venus ready for return WTA Finals

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SINGAPORE (AP) Venus Williams returns to the year-end WTA Finals for the first time since reaching the 2009 final, and the fifth time overall, starting on Sunday in Singapore.

Williams joins top-ranked Simona Halep of Romania, second-ranked Garbine Muguruza of Spain, third-ranked Karolina Pliskova of Czech Republic, fourth-ranked Elina Svitolina of Ukraine, sixth-ranked Caroline Wozniacki of Denmark, seventh-ranked Jelena Ostapenko of Latvia and ninth-ranked Caroline Garcia of France.

They’re all pretty special,” said Williams, of her career appearances in the year-end competition. “It’s the end of the year. Only Top 8 get here. It’s definitely something well earned.”

At 37-years-old, Williams is the third oldest player to qualify for the year-end championships behind a 39-year-old Billie Jean King in 1983, and a 38-year-old Martina Navratilova in 1994.

Williams is the oldest player in this draw with 27-year-old Wozniacki the next oldest.

Having played since 1995, Williams has seen the women’s game advance, saying: “The competition is so much greater. It’s a beautiful change, in fact.”

In 2008, Williams won the WTA Finals title, going 3-0 in the round-robin, and defeating Vera Zvonareva of Russia in the final.

She was also was a semifinalist in her first two appearances in the finals, in 1999 and 2000.

Williams reached two Grand Slam finals this season at the Australian Open, where she lost to what turned out to be an already pregnant younger sister, Serena, and at Wimbledon, where she fell to Muguruza.

Every player but Garcia has a possibility of playing themselves into the year-end No. 1 ranking depending on their result this week. Williams has ranked No. 1 for 11 weeks of her career.

In the round-robin, Williams is situated in the White Group with fellow big-hitters Muguruza and Pliskova, who both ranked No. 1 at some time during this season, and French Open champion Jelena Ostapenko.

Williams opens the competition against Pliskova on Sunday. The two are tied at one match apiece in their head-to-head.

She holds a 3-2 winning record over Muguruza and is 1-0 over Ostapenko.

“I think my group is more aggressive style players in the group and the other one is more defending,” Pliskova said. “I just like to play better these players.

“I start with Venus tomorrow, so I beat her once from match point and once I lost very close match. This one is open.”

Goerges ends 6-year title wait with victory at Kremlin Cup

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MOSCOW (AP) Julia Goerges ended her six-year wait for another WTA singles title Saturday with a 6-1, 6-2 victory over Daria Kasatkina in the Kremlin Cup final.

Goerges cruised to victory against her Russian opponent, who was ranked one place below her at 28th.

The German swept the first five games of the first set before Kasatkina could even get on the board.

Kasatkina put up more resistance at the start of the second, forcing three break points in Goerges’ first service game, but couldn’t convert them and was broken next game.

Goerges is now 3-7 in career singles finals, with her last title in Stuttgart in 2011. Before Saturday’s match, she had lost six straight finals, including three in the space of two months this summer.