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US Open diary: Rafael Nadal gives the crowd a treat, but can't stop his own heart from getting broken

The crowd inside Arthur Ashe stadium were happy to see an epic battle, but for Nadal it was a disaster of epic proportions.

Rafael Nadal
Rafael Nadal

Two days ago I had talked about the sharp contrasts in the sport of tennis, and how strange it is to see the players behave so differently on and off the court. Yesterday, as Rafael Nadal did his best to ride the wave of positive energy being exuded by the crowd and quell the challenge of the spirited Lucas Pouille, the contrasts were taken to an infinitely higher scale.

On the one hand, you had a boisterous Arthur Ashe stadium that seemed a little punch-drunk at getting to witness an all-time classic in the first week of the tournament itself. A majority of the spectators wanted Nadal to win, and they made sure everyone knew that. They screamed ‘Vamos!’ along with the Spaniard, roared in approval every time he made one of his impossible gets, and sometimes even went overboard with their cheering – like the time when Nadal had to glare in the direction of the stands after committing two consecutive double faults to go 0-30 down in the fourth set.

The crowd wanted Nadal to win, but they were deliriously happy just to be there and see him perform. 

On the other hand, the man himself left the arena with a distinctly bitter taste in his mouth. He looked testy and uncomfortable all through the match, and at times seemed bewildered at how well Pouille was playing. His forehand misses sent murmurs of panic around the stadium, but you could see that he himself was the worst affected by each one of those untimely errors. And when he arrived for his press conference, he looked like he wanted to take a battering ram and beat everyone around him to death with it.

For the crowd, the fourth round match between Nadal and Pouille was a once-in-a-lifetime carnival. But for Nadal, it was a disaster of epic proportions.

Of course, it all could have turned out differently. Nadal was not at his best, but he could have still put the match to bed if he hadn’t made those ghastly forehand errors at 2-2 and 6-6 in the tiebreaker. Pouille could have not produced his best tennis exactly when it mattered, and could have missed one of his groundstrokes while being in danger of getting broken at 4-4 in the fifth set. Nadal could have served better throughout the match, and could have avoided targeting the Pouille backhand once it became clear that it wasn’t going to break down.

Why do we try to look for patterns and processes though, when the players themselves don’t? “(It) was a very, very close match that anything could happen...when you are 4-3 in the fifth, 30-love, is not a question of experience, no? Is a question of play(ing) a little bit better than what I did. That's it. A couple of mistakes there,” said Nadal, refusing to pinpoint any specific reason for his loss. 

The Spaniard got a little riled up when he was asked whether the problem was more mental than physical. “When the opponent beat(s) you, is not the time to find excuses, (whether it) is mental or physical. Doesn't matter. The opponent was a little better than you. That's it. You have to congratulate the opponent, go to the next tournament, the next practice, and try to be ready.”

And when there was the suggestion that the pressure of the best-of-five format in Grand Slams was getting to him, Nadal let out his snarky side in full force. “After winning 14 and being in semifinals a lot of times, you feel that's pressure? I’m 30 years old, after having the career that I have, is not a question of pressure.” There was also more than one derisive snort in the middle of that reply, just to make sure everyone knew how he felt about the question.

It would be totally uncharacteristic for Nadal to be affected by the pressure of the best-of-five format, that’s true. You don’t get to where he is without having the ability to deal with long matches and grueling battles; heck, for the vast majority of Nadal’s career, long matches have been his forte.

But could the pressure of his recent close losses have been eating at his head, with the pressure getting magnified on the biggest of stages? This is the third straight time Nadal has been knocked out of a Slam in a five-setter, and that’s not to mention the two three-set losses he suffered at the Olympics. The heartbreaks are piling up, and at some point you start to get rattled – even if you are Rafael Nadal.

The forehand errors in the tiebreaker were, in the simplest of terms, completely un-Rafa-like. It wasn’t even like he was struggling with his forehand all day; he had been fairly solid with his groundstrokes up until he was a break up in the fifth set. Those two errors came out of the blue, and while it is pointless for us to try and determine the exact reason for it, it’s tough to let such things go.

If only we had the wisdom of Nadal himself. “You cannot go crazy thinking about these kind of things, no? You have a mistake. The opponent played a good point on match point, and that's it.”

That’s it, indeed. Pouille was sensational, Nadal wasn’t at his best, and Arthur Ashe got to witness the perfect storm – sport in a nutshell, in other words. And while most of the spectators came away happy with their lives and privileged that they had watched such a pulsating encounter, Nadal himself might take some time to slay his newfound demons and silence the voices about his big-match jitters.

“Doesn't matter if you go through injuries; doesn't matter if you arrived with less preparation. At the end of the day, nobody remembers that. You know, you lost in the fourth round and that's it.”

Thta’s a depressing way to put a cap to Nadal’s 2016 US Open campaign, and at times like these you really wish the players could take a peek inside the fans’ heads. Chin up Rafa; even though you lost, you still gave everyone memories of a lifetime.

Small consolation for a great champion like Nadal, but something is better than nothing, no?

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