Valiant in defeat, Nadal comes up empty again after Fognini's historic comeback

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Streeter Lecka / Getty Images Sport / Getty

On Friday night, Rafael Nadal owned a career 151-0 record in Grand Slam matches in which he'd won the first two sets. By 1:26 ET Saturday morning, he was 151-1.

In the third round of the US Open, world No. 32 Fabio Fognini stunned the 14-time major champ, roaring back from out of nowhere to win 3-6, 4-6, 6-4, 6-3, 6-4 in three insane hours and 46 insane minutes.

It's tough to summon the words to adequately describe the lunacy that transpired in the wee hours on Arthur Ashe Stadium court, but let's start here: Nadal did not choke.

There's an ambiguous agency when comebacks like this happen; it can be hard to discern how much credit to pay the victor for a gutsy recovery and how much fault to lay on the loser for collapsing. Nadal may have gotten tight at points, his groundstrokes may have lost some of their sting as the proceedings dragged on, but the real reason he didn't win the match is that Fognini made some sort of deal with the devil and turned into an honest-to-goodness monster for three frenetic, disorienting, altogether brilliant sets of tennis.

Nadal was cruising in the early going, up two sets and a break and well on his way to a straight-sets victory. He was playing impenetrable defense, had his patented up-the-line forehand singing, and was landing seemingly all of his first serves. It was as good as he's looked all year.

But as soon as Fognini got the break back in the third set, everything started to go topsy-turvy. Suddenly, he was stepping inside the baseline and unloading off both wings; flat, heavy, line-scraping strokes that set Nadal on the run, time after time after time.

One specific point that seemed to signal the turning of the tide saw Fognini hold the exact same spot on the baseline, literally not moving a toe, as Nadal scampered sideline to sideline to sideline trying to keep the rally alive, only to have it end as the completely stationary Italian blasted a backhand winner down the line.

That Fognini has loads of talent has never been in doubt. But he's never proven remotely capable of mastering the mental mechanics of the game. He's smashed more rackets and had more on-court blowups than one cares to count, and the most consistent thing about his game has been its inconsistency. Somehow, he turned everything outside observers have come to understand about him on its head in this match.

Nadal was up a break in the fourth, as well. For the second time, Fognini managed to erase it and win the set. In the hypnotic, mind-melting fifth, the two men traded seven consecutive breaks. Nadal's last one saw Fognini blow a 40-0 lead while serving at 4-3.

Each time this happened - and particularly that last time - you waited for Fognini to self-combust. He simply would not. After what would've been a devastating missed opportunity for any player, let alone one with Fognini's track record of fickleness, he broke Nadal at love. Then he served out the match.

Did he commit 57 unforced errors to Nadal's 18? Yes. He also out-winnered him 70-30. He completely dictated play, and in the end, there simply wasn't a whole lot Nadal could do.

There wasn't a shred of precedent for any of this. On top of Nadal's unblemished record when playing with a two-set lead, Fognini was 0-17 lifetime against top-10 opponents in hardcourt majors. He was also 0-7 on hardcourts in 2015 coming into the US Open. Now he's into the fourth round there for the first time in his life.

For Nadal, it's the latest in a string of crushing defeats that will leave him Slamless in a calendar year or the first time since 2004. He fought like a maniac until the end, as he always does, and he has no reason to feel that he let himself down.

And yet, after failing to advance past the quarters for the fourth straight major, it's hard to see where he goes from here. Watching Fognini repeatedly crush his hanging, topspin-laden balls back with downward-diving blasts, it was difficult not to feel like the game may simply be passing Rafa by.

But Nadal has never been one to blame himself or lose perspective, and that hasn't changed even in the face of the greatest existential crisis of his career.

"My mind allowed me to fight until the last point, (in recent years) I was not always able to do that," he said after the match.

"It's an improvement for me. That's a positive thing. Happy with that."