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.