Magic of Fabio Fognini ends Nadal's Slam season

NEW YORK -- There were a number of reasons to believe Rafael Nadal would have a relatively easy voyage into the third round.

For starters, he is a two-time US Open champion and had won 22 of his past 23 matches here. And although his seeding was a modest No. 8 -- his lowest in more than a decade -- he had beaten Italian Fabio Fognini in their only two previous hard-court meetings. This seemed important because Fognini became only the second man this year to beat Rafa twice on clay in the same year, joining Novak Djokovic.

And then there was this: Fognini was 0-17 against top-10-ranked players in hard-court majors.

When Rafa won the first two sets, the match seemed to be over. For Nadal had never, ever lost a Grand Slam match when leading two sets to love. And then he was up a break at 3-1 in the third.

In the end, though, something magical happened. Actually, Fognini happened.

Improbably, implausibly, he won, 3-6, 4-6, 6-4, 6-3, 6-4.

It was over at 1:26 a.m., Saturday, local time.

Fogini won a total of 154 points to 152 for Nadal.

"He played great," said Nadal, shaking his head. "He win so, accept that he played better than me. That's what happened. My mind allowed me to fight until the last point, [in recent years] I was not always able to do that.

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

The talkative Fognini was rendered nearly speechless immediately afterward.

"With Rafa, it's never easy," Fognini said. "Right now, I can tell you something more. Something incredible I did today. Two sets to love against Rafa, maybe you have to lose. But I win. Everything was in a perfect way."

Believe it or not, Fognini has already beaten Nadal three times this season. And, perhaps more to the point, he was exceedingly well behaved throughout, something his fans know rarely happens.

After dropping the two first sets, the alarmingly casual Fognini stepped into the court and set off a laser show. He started whacking flat-footed winners from all over the court, and Nadal began to shrink back off the baseline, like the young clay-court player he once was. Soon enough, the rollicking match entered the fifth and final set.

As the fifth set progressed, it got sillier and sillier. After each holding serve, the two players broke each other seven consecutive times. The exhausted (but enthusiastic) crowd at Arthur Ashe Stadium could hardly believe what they were seeing. John and Patrick McEnroe, calling the match in the ESPN booth, couldn't fathom it, either.

"This is ridiculous," John said.

Yes, it was. The Italian reporters in the media center, who had been openly cheering throughout the match, were reduced to genuine, amazed laughter.

Fognini, serving for the match at 5-4, won it when Rafa missed a forehand long and, finally, a backhand wide.

Afterward, the Italian pointed to his head with two fingers. He should have been pointing to his heart. And this is a guy who has been criticized for failing to match his dazzling talent with anything comparable in the effort department.

"That was one of greatest, most spectacular comebacks you're ever going to see on a tennis court," John McEnroe mused. "The level that he played to mount that miraculous comeback will be remembered for a long time."

So this is where we are with Nadal at the age of 29: After winning at least one Grand Slam singles final for 10 consecutive years, Rafa will go home to Mallorca, Spain, without a major trophy from 2015.

"It was amazing," Nadal said. "I can't imagine how difficult it was to make it happen. Accept that it wasn't my year. Keep fighting to finish the season in a positive way."

He lost in the quarterfinals at the Australian Open to Tomas Berdych and at the same stage to Novak Djokovic at the French Open, ending a string of five straight titles and nine in 10 years. Wimbledon was the worst; Nadal fell to Dustin Brown in the second round.

For years, it has been speculated that Nadal's demanding physical game would one day catch up with him. That day has come. Injuries forced Nadal to miss the 2012 and 2014 US Opens -- and now he's gone in the third round of 2015.

"Against Rafa, it's always difficult," Fognini said. "The fifth set was really difficult for both sides. When you go up one break on Rafa, your mind starts thinking about too many things."

John McEnroe, who won this tournament three straight times from 1979-81, had the right idea.

"I feel like I want to go practice right now after seeing that," he said.