NEW YORK • After four gruelling hours spent fending off a relentless adversary who refused to submit, Rafael Nadal saw the ball exactly where he wanted it, practically on a platter and ready to be plucked.
It was 6-6 in the fifth-set tie-breaker on Sunday at the end of one of the most compelling matches of this US Open.
The No. 4 seed had already fought off three set-point attempts from his opponent, the No. 24 seed, Lucas Pouille.
Now the Spaniard had one of his favourite shots tantalisingly before his eyes, an approach forehand of the kind he has drilled for a winner countless times in hundreds of matches throughout the years.
But this time Nadal rushed it too much, and the ball hit the net.
PREPARED FOR THE HARD SLOG
Physically, I'm stronger (now). That gave me a lot of confidence before the match. I knew if I wanted to win that, it's not going to be like three sets, 6-1, 6-2, 6-2. It would be long.
LUCAS POUILLE, the 24th seed, on the mindset that helped him defeat Nadal, winner of 14 Grand Slam singles titles.
"Was a big mistake," he said.
But there was still a chance.
Nadal had been destroyed in the first set, and he had come back. He lost the third set, too, and blew a break in the fifth set, and there he was in a fifth-set tie-breaker.
If Pouille, a 22-year-old Frenchman looking for the biggest win of his life, had not had the nerve to convert his other three match points, perhaps he would fail to do it here, too.
But, under the pressure of momentous stakes, Pouille summoned the nerve needed to seal the match.
He won the next two points to earn a thrilling 6-1, 2-6, 6-4, 3-6, 7-6 (8-6) fourth-round upset of Nadal in 4hr 8min.
Nadal had been gaining momentum coming into the match. He had not lost a set in three matches. His quarter of the draw was wide open - except for Pouille, that is.
"I lost an opportunity to have a very good event here," Nadal said. "I am sad for that."
Pouille, who is playing in just his 11th Major tournament, had never reached the third round until this year at Wimbledon, where he went to the quarter-finals.
But he has long been considered a rising prospect in France, and now he is beginning to collect on his promise.
"I think because, mentally, I'm stronger," he said. "Physically, I'm stronger (now). That gave me a lot of confidence before the match. I knew if I wanted to win that, it's not going to be like three sets, 6-1, 6-2, 6-2. It would be long."
By steeling himself for the slog, Pouille was able to withstand Nadal's comebacks and match him stroke for stroke.
Indeed, in the final tally, each player won 156 points.
In the fifth set, Nadal broke Pouille's serve in the first game and was up, 4-2. It seemed as if Nadal had his opening.
But anyone expecting the more experienced Nadal - with 14 Grand Slam titles on his resume, including two Opens - to sweep Pouille away was shocked. Pouille broke back to make it 3-4.
Nadal said his experience alone had not been enough to make the difference in that game. "The problem is arrive to 6-all on the tie-break of the fifth," he said. "I should be winning before."
The 30-year-old was sad that he squandered an opportunity to do something special at the US Open, but happy with his effort and prospects for the rest of the season.
"I fight until the end," said Nadal, who came back from more than two months of inaction due to a wrist injury and won gold in the doubles and reached the singles semi-finals at last month's Rio Olympics. "There were things I could do better. I had the right attitude. I fought right up to the last ball.
"But I need something else, I need something more that was not there today. I going to keep working to try to find."
NEW YORK TIMES, REUTERS
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