Nadal overcomes “worst start ever”

September 4, 2022

It was all in a night's work for Rafa, who will now try to beat Richard Gasquet for the 18th straight time

Nadal overcomes “worst start ever”

From his pounding playing style to his vast repertoire of fist-pumps, Rafael Nadal has always made the tennis court feel like a boxing ring. But that was never quite as true as it was during the fourth set of his 2-6, 6-4, 6-2, 6-1 win over Fabio Fognini at the US Open last Thursday night.

After digging himself out of an early hole, Nadal had raced past Fognini to lead 3-0 in the fourth. But an awkward attempt to hit a lob left his face close to the court-close enough that his racquet bounced up and straight into his nose. The action took a millisecond, but it left Nadal bloody and dizzy. Like any boxer, though, he had a trainer there to clean it up, just in time to answer the bell and close out a match that felt a good deal more perilous than the scores might indicate.

That sense of peril began right away, with what Nadal described as "probably the worst start ever." He was broken in the third game, then broken again, then broken twice more in the second set, until Fognini led 6-2, 4-2, and looked to be on his way to a repeat of his 2015 victory over Rafa on this court.

"For an hour and a half, I wasn't competing," Nadal said.

What was the problem? At times he seemed to be moving slowly toward his left along the baseline. Other times, he was altering his service toss, in a way that was reminiscent of what did at Wimbledon to avoid aggravating an abdominal tear. He shook his head in frustration, had animated conversations with his coaching team, and made error after error-he reached the 20 mark in UEs in no time at all. Some balls ended up in the bottom of the net, some five feet long, some two feet wide.

"Every time I was hitting the ball was another chance to miss the ball," Nadal said.

Late in the first set, Rafa suddenly started walking toward the chair umpire. Most people watching likely assumed he was about to retire-that's how bad he looked. Never fear, though, he just needed to get something from the sideline.

From what Rafa said afterward, the problem was technical rather than physical. He had no rhythm to his swing. The solution was to start making shots, even if they were safe and down the middle. From there, he could put more pace on the ball and aim closer to the lines.

The plan eventually worked. Nadal needed some help from Fognini, in the form of a double fault at break point and some overhit ground strokes on other important points. Rafa took it from there. Down 2-4, he struggled his way to 5-4, and when Fognini made another error at set point, he was home free. By the middle of the third, Nadal was in battering ram mode. He played fast, hit every ball hard, and took Fognini's best shots-the ones that beat him here seven years ago-and sent back something better.

Nadal said he was happy to survive. What started as an ominous evening ended with him in top gear. Provided his nose is OK, he isn't concussed, he hasn't torn another ab, and he hasn't incurred an injury we don't know about yet-provided all of that, he looks ready for Richard Gasquet in the next round, and the second week soon after. –

Nadal overcomes “worst start ever”