U.S. Open 2015: Serena Williams Survives; Rafael Nadal Does Not

Serena Williams and Rafael Nadal are two terrific champions who have won multiple major tournaments, Williams 21 and Nadal 14. At various times over the last decade, both have dominated their sport, but at this major event their fortunes appeared to have reversed.

Williams is in hot pursuit of victories in all four major tournaments in 2015, and Nadal has lost in all of them.

For the first time since he began winning majors in 2004, Nadal will go a calendar year without winning a single major tournament. That unkind distinction was confirmed when No. 32 Fabio Fognini came from two sets down to upset Nadal, 3-6, 4-6, 6-4, 6-3, 6-4, in a heavyweight slugfest that lasted until 1:27 Saturday morning.

It had begun 3 hours 39 minutes earlier as Nadal followed Williams out under the lights of Arthur Ashe Stadium for the second time this week.

Unlike Williams, Nadal has not had a very good year, but this result was more about a fantastic comeback fashioned by Fognini than anything Nadal did wrong.

“It’s something incredible I did today,” Fognini said.

Rafael Nadal walked off the court after losing to Fabio Fognini. For the first time since he began winning majors in 2004, Nadal will go a calendar year without winning a single major tournament.
Both men competed to their limits, and perhaps a little beyond. They ran and fought, pounding grounds strokes at one another and electrifying an audience that grew increasingly loud even as it thinned out because of the hour.

On the final stroke, an errant backhand by Nadal that went wide, Fognini stood behind the baseline with his hands on his hips, knowing that for the first time since the clock had turned to Saturday morning, he would not have to do any more running.

It was not a look of elation for such a hard-earned victory, but more one of relief. There was no fist-pump, no triumphant yell, barely even a smile. He stood there for a moment, looked around, and then met Nadal at the net to shake hands after they had played 306 points.

It was the first time Nadal had lost a match at a Grand Slam tournament after winning the first two sets, which some may see as the latest indication of his faltering form. But it took a signature performance by Fognini to make it happen.

“It was not a match that I lost,” Nadal said. “Even if I had opportunities, it’s a match that he wins.”

In the fourth round, Fognini will play Feliciano López, who beat Milos Raonic in straight sets earlier in the day. First, after his grueling encounter with Nadal, he will require some rest.

“He starts running from the beginning,” Fognini said of Nadal, “and he runs until the end of the week.”

Indeed, Nadal is one of the great defensive players of all time, but it seemed at times as if Fognini was controlling him with a stick. In the final three sets, Fognini spent much of the time in the middle of the baseline pushing an increasingly exhausted Nadal from alley to alley.

During the first two sets, the fans in Arthur Ashe Stadium, assuming Nadal was on his way to a quick victory, supported Fognini, if only to keep the action alive. Once he gained the momentum, the fans shifted their allegiance toward Nadal.

But by the end of the final set, they were simply cheering every remarkable shot, acknowledging the determination and skill of both men, saluting their stamina and enjoying a compelling display of guts.

It was an odd final set, with seven consecutive service breaks until Fognini finally held at the end.

Serving at 2-1, 15-0, Fognini and Nadal traded 16 shots across the net before Nadal finally put it away, responding with his loudest fist-pump of the set to that point. Three points later, Nadal hit a screaming backhand down the line for a winner and a break of serve and celebrated by clenching his fists at his side and screaming with his eyes closed.

When Nadal allowed Fognini to break right back and go ahead by 3-2, it seemed catastrophic. But Nadal did the same right back to even the set, 3-3, and then Fognini broke back again, winning the final point with a clever sliced backhand drop shot when Nadal was expecting another high-octane ground stroke that would force him back across the court the other way.

By the final game, there was nothing cute about it. Both men just hit as hard as they could, until Nadal, going to extremes to run around his backhand to punch a forehand, made the last mistake in an amazingly even match.

It was the 154th point Fognini had won. Nadal won 152.

“It was an incredible match, for sure,” Fognini said.

“By the way,” Nadal pointed out at about 2:15 a.m. Saturday, “for me, it is amazing to win, 10 years in a row, a Grand Slam. I think nobody did it. You can imagine how difficult it is to make that happen.”

He added that he would “accept that this was not my year and keep fighting until the end of the season to finish in a positive way.”

Bethanie Mattek-Sands during her match against Serena Williams on Friday night at the U.S. Open.
In the earlier match, after two sets of tense tennis, Williams fell back onto the court in a split and watched as the ball cruised over the net headed for the far corner, away from Bethanie Mattek-Sands’s reach.

Williams sat on the court and watched as the ball landed safely inside the line for a winner. Williams bent over, clenched her fists and yelled triumphantly.

The momentum had finally tilted in Williams’s favor.

Williams has stalked the Grand Slam from continent to continent since January, but even though there have been times of frustration and vulnerability, she has been the last one standing every time.

That held true again on Friday, when Williams lost the first set and withstood a lively challenge from Mattek-Sands to win their third-round match, 3-6, 7-5, 6-0, at the United States Open.

In an all-American matchup of No. 1 vs. No. 101 at Arthur Ashe Stadium, Williams overcame her inconsistency and 28 unforced errors to beat Mattek-Sands, whose variety of play and aggressive approach nearly caused a memorable upset.

“I just made a lot of errors,” Williams said in an even, subdued voice after the match. “I had to play myself in after that.”

Although Williams lost a set for the 10th time in her 24 matches at the four major tournaments this year, she regained her signature ferocity and laser focus late in the second set and was unstoppable in the third.

The victory was the 31st in a row for Williams in a major tournament dating to last year’s Open, and it leaves her just four wins from an elusive Grand Slam. After the match, Mattek-Sands, at 30, three years younger than Williams, walked off the court to a loud, appreciative ovation from the fans. Among those clapping was Williams, her friend. At the net, Mattek-Sands told Williams that she was rooting for her to make history.

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