NEW YORK — Rafael Nadal was approaching his breaking point, thanks to his inability to convert break points. Deep in the second set Saturday evening at the US Open, he trailed Leonardo Mayer 6-7 (2), 3-3. Thirteen break points had escaped Nadal’s grasp, like objects in an anxiety dream. He crouched to receive the 14th chance, brow furrowed.
Mayer hit a second serve and then walloped an inside-out forehand off Nadal’s return. The shot flew long. The spell broken, the crowd erupted as Nadal pumped both arms, pounded his heart three times with his right hand and bellowed, “Vamos!”
It was quite a demonstration, given that this was just a third-round match, and Mayer, who didn’t make it through qualifying, reached the main draw only as a “lucky loser,” taking the place of a player who withdrew before the tournament began. Nadal went on to win the match 6-7 (2), 6-3, 6-1, 6-4 over the course of 3¼ hours. But it was a grind.
Nadal denied feeling an unusual degree of pressure due to the unusual, tumultuous circumstances, but he also admitted that he’s searching — thus far unsuccessfully — for the requisite A-game of a US Open champion.
“I hope that the last three sets can be a good turning point for me,” Nadal said after he defeated Mayer. “In my opinion, I played much better later in the match today than the two previous days.”
Those were days on which Nadal bemoaned the disconnect between his satisfying practice sessions and his on-court performance. Taro Daniel, ranked No. 121, threw a first-set scare into Nadal and then dug in and went blow-for-blow with him another three sets. “I am practicing well,” Nadal declared after that one, “[but] I need to compete better.”
Federer also has been grousing about his competence, but he might have scored the kind of turning point Nadal spoke of in his 6-3, 6-3, 7-5 deconstruction of No. 31 seed Feliciano Lopez on Saturday night. “I was happy I had good energy,” Federer said afterward, “because I think that was my biggest worry: that somehow after the two five-setters that I had, I was going to feel a little slow, hard to throw the engine on, you know, that I would have to force myself so much I would get tired from that.”
A five-time champion in New York, Federer had applied caveats to his hopes at the start, largely because a recent bout of back pain left the 36-year-old feeling ill-prepared and “rusty.”
Sandbagging? Hardly. For the first time in his career, Federer was forced to five sets in back-to-back matches to start a Grand Slam.
He said he was thrilled to survive those matches but acknowledged that it might impact him adversely if he goes deep in the tournament. “So here we are,” he said after winning a harrowing second-round encounter with Mikhail Youzhny. “It is what it is. I’m pretty confident that I’m only going to get better from here.”
Federer isn’t quite as tunnel-visioned as Nadal, but he’s more sensitive to the pressure he and Nadal are under. He has caught the disruption vibe that has been bubbling below the surface of this event. “When you see a lot of seeds going out, I don’t know, you naturally put the focus on you for it not to happen to you,” he said. “You become more … not worried, but you’re, like, more aware of it, that it seems a tournament of the upsets, so it’s going to get you, too.”
Unfortunately for Federer, the draw hasn’t opened as wide for him as it has for Nadal, who would face just one seeded player on his way to the semifinals (No. 9 David Goffin or No. 18 Gael Monfils in the quarters). Federer’s fourth-round opponent will be No. 33 Philipp Kohlschreiber, who hasn’t beaten the 19-time Grand Slam champion in 11 tries. After that, Federer, the third seed, would face resurgent former US Open champ and No. 24 seed Juan Martin del Potro or hard-charging No. 6 seed Dominic Thiem to get to the semis.
Still, Nadal, the No. 1 seed, has a tricky opponent in the next round in Alexandr Dolgopolov. Nadal leads their series 6-2, but the two wins by “Dog” were three-setters at big events. “He has the ability to hit the ball very quick and to take the ball very early,” Nadal said. “So if I am not playing aggressive, I [won’t be] playing long. If I let him play from good positions, then it’s going to be very, very difficult.”
Maybe not as difficult as Federer could be in the semis, but more than tough enough — for now.