Never before in the Open Era has France placed three men in the quarterfinals before at a grand slam. History was made Sunday thanks to Lucas Pouille’s big upset of Rafael Nadal in a memorable five set epic at Ashe Stadium. The Flying Frenchman showed nerves of steel to pull out the biggest win of his career by defeating Nadal 6-1, 2-6, 6-4, 3-6, 7-6 (6) in a great fourth round match that lasted over four hours.
The 22-year old withstood a strong fight from the always relentless Nadal, who had strong support from the capacity crowd in Flushing Meadows. However, Pouille also had some support from appreciative fans who enjoyed the energy and similar never say die attitude he played with. He easily could’ve lost after dropping serve a second straight time, allowing Nadal to finally close out the fourth set and square the match. When Nadal secured an early break in the opening game and held for 2-0, it looked like the 14-time grand slam winner would prevail.
But one thing that was noteworthy was Pouille’s attitude. He never gave up. There was no quit from the rising 25th ranked Frenchman. When Nadal pressed for a double break in the third game, he stood up to the test and got a huge hold of serve to get his footing in the final set. Possessing a stronger serve and a potent forehand and all around game that saw the athletic Pouille not afraid to finish points at the net, he hung around long enough for Nadal to crack.
It came in the eighth game. Pouille was able to take advantage of some errors. He also was very aggressive and earned the break back with some strong hitting to level the match with a huge, “Come on!” The crowd cheered. They knew what they were seeing was special. Especially against a crowd favorite like Nadal, who’s won this tournament twice (2010, 2013).
Neither player budged with Nadal bravely holding serve twice to force the dramatic fifth set tiebreaker. It was 25 years ago during an amazing run by then 39-year old American legend Jimmy Connors that he looked into the camera and echoed those famous words:
“This is what they came for. This is what they want.”
Indeed, it was. Early in the breaker, it looked like the younger underdog would run away with it. Two key Nadal misses from the baseline and two clutch serves gave Pouille a 4-1 mini break lead. After he held his nerve winning both points on serve for 3-4, Pouille showed no anxiety winning the next two points to set up triple match point. With the crowd screaming, Nadal bravely saved the first two with some bold play. He also drew a forehand miss from Pouille into the net.
Now, it was on Pouille’s racket. A third chance to advance to his second straight quarterfinal, following up his first at Wimbledon. During another entertaining rally that had the crowd into it, he finally showed some nerves missing a forehand way long due to some outstanding defense and hustle from a determined Nadal. What followed was the biggest point that Rafa will be thinking about for quite a while.
Pushing Pouille around the back of the baseline, Nadal had it all set up for what would’ve been his first match point. He got a short reply and had a gimme forehand with an open court. But somehow, he missed netting it. The shocking result gave Pouille a 7-6 lead and fourth match point. He earned it with the kind of bravery that can be admired. During a lengthy rally, Pouille went big crushing a forehand winner down the line to earn the victory. In the end, the player who was more daring in the biggest moment won.
For Nadal, he’ll look back on what could’ve been had he made that forehand at 6-all. He doesn’t always make his shots now. Part of it is timing which will come back with more match play. After withdrawing from Roland Garros due to injury and pulling out of Wimbledon, the likable 30-year old fourth ranked Spaniard returned for the Olympics in Rio. He made a nice run advancing to the semifinals before falling in three sets to a resurgent Juan Martin Del Potro. He lost the bronze medal to Kei Nishikori but teamed up with Marc Lopez to win gold in men’s doubles. For the season, Nadal is still 37-12 with two titles. So, all is not lost. He still has some good tennis left. But unless he improves a predictable serve that produced just one ace compared to Pouille’s 11 and stays aggressive, it’s hard to see him winning another major. His health will be a key factor.
As for Pouille, he has the look of a future slam winner. The tremendous heart he plays with along with the weapons he possesses- particularly the big forehand- make him a threat. He has proven that his run at Wimbledon wasn’t a fluke. Now, he’ll face countryman Gael Monfils next. The always electrifying Monfils easily ousted Marcos Baghdatis in straight sets 6-3, 6-2, 6-3. The 10th seed made the quarters here in 2014 and had Roger Federer on the ropes but blew a two sets to none lead. He can be unpredictable. His serve is certainly strong enough as his forehand and defense to take him to a first U.S. Open semifinal. But Pouille’s game might be too good if he doesn’t get overwhelmed by the occasion.
One thing is guaranteed. There will be a French player in the semis. It’s expected to be for Novak Djokovic, who first must win tonight’s late match following Angelique Kerber/Petra Kvitova. He’ll take on Brit Kyle Edmund, who knocked out John Isner. Assuming Djokovic gets through that, he’ll face the other talented Frenchman, Jo-Wilfried Tsonga– a four set winner over Jack Sock. Tsonga has the distinction has the most gifted player without a major. He’s always a threat. We’ll see what he has in store for us.
Farewell Madison: In what amounted to a disappointment, American Madison Keys lost her fourth round match to Caroline Wozniacki 6-3, 6-4. I did boldly take her to finally break through and win her first slam. But it’s not to be. The powerful Keys with the big serve and big game still makes too many errors. She committed 33 unforced errors compared to Wozniacki’s seven. Of course, she also had 18 more winners with a 30-12 edge to the more defensive and consistent Wozniacki, who loves playing here.
The problem for Keys is she is either hit or miss. She easily could’ve lost to American Alison Riske in the first round. But pulled it out in three. Keys also needed to dig deep in the third round just to sneak out a three set win over Japan’s Naomi Osaka. All that work makes it harder to win a major. Until she becomes more consistent and develops another strategy, Keys will probably fall short of reaching her full potential.
Wozniacki knows who she is. The 26-year old popular Dane is a two-time runner-up in New York City. She’s fallen out of the top 50 due to an injury plagued and inconsistent season. She entered play 13-14. Her four straight wins will guarantee her a higher ranking. She’ll next face 26-year old Latvian Anastasija Sevastova, who was a 6-4, 7-5 upset winner over promising Brit Johanna Konta. If Wozniacki can prevail, she’d get the winner between Roberta Vinci and Kerber/Kvitova. Kerber currently leads Kvitova 6-3, 3-2. If Kerber prevails, she’d be on track to possibly become number one. A U.S. Open win guarantees it.