US OPEN TENNIS: Rafa Nadal vows to bounce back after shock exit at Flushing Meadows

Rafael Nada during the defeat to Fabio Fognini of Italy
Rafael Nada during the defeat to Fabio Fognini of Italy

Rafael Nadal crashed out of the US Open third round after losing a five-set thriller to Italy’s Fabio Fognini.

Nadal looked certain to reach the last 16 in Flushing Meadows when he opened up a two-set lead under the lights of Arthur Ashe Stadium, but Fognini pulled off a stunning fightback to win 3-6 4-6 6-4 6-3 6-4.

It is the first grand slam match Nadal has lost from two sets up and means the Spaniard finishes the year without a major title for the first time since 2004.

A disappointing season has seen the 14-time grand slam champion slip to eighth in the world rankings while losing in the quarter-finals at the Australian and French Opens, and in the second round at Wimbledon.

“The only thing that means is I played worse than the last 10 years,” Nadal said.

“That’s the real thing. By the way, for me it was amazing to win a grand slam 10 years in a row. I think nobody did. You can imagine how difficult it is to make that happen.

“I accept this was not my year and keep fighting till the end of the season to finish in a positive way for me.”

The 29-year-old had been bullish about his form coming into the tournament and after his second-round win he said criticism of his performances had gone too far.

Fognini, however, proved too powerful for his opponent in the final three sets, executing 70 winners during an exhilarating match, which lasted three hours and 46 minutes.

“I probably I make a lot of unforced errors, but it doesn’t matter,” the 32nd seed said.

“You have to do that with a great player that runs a lot on the baseline. He’s one of the best players in the world.”

Fognini added: “With Rafa, you have to risk. You have to attack him when you have the chance. He is one of the best passing player in the world, if not the best.”

The world number 30 will now play Spain’s Feliciano Lopez, who beat 10th seed Milos Raonic 6-2 7-6 (7/4) 6-3.

Joining Fognini and Lopez in the fourth round is number one seed Novak Djokovic, who eased past Italian Andreas Seppi 6-3 7-5 7-5.

Five breaks of serve and 37 winners were testament to a dominant, if unspectacular, performance from Djokovic, who is yet to drop a set in the tournament.

“I’m satisfied, but you can always do better,” the Serbian said.

“We’re all perfectionists in a way. We see certain things we could have done better. But, again, a win is a win.”

Djokovic was comfortable in his shot-making but not always in his body, as he occasionally appeared dizzy and struggling for focus.

Andy Murray had said a head cold had overcome a number of players this week, but Djokovic insisted his troubles were only a minor distraction.

“Yes, at the beginning, in the first set, I was struggling,” Djokovic said.

“The conditions are not easy, obviously, but it’s the same for both of us. Sometimes the nerves play a little bit of a role.

“You tend to feel not that light on the court occasionally but I’ve faced this particular feeling and situation so many times in my life. It occurs. It comes and goes.”

Djokovic will now play world number 23 Roberto Bautista Agut, who had been trailing number 14 seed David Goffin by two sets to one when the Belgian retired.

Also through to the fourth round is defending champion Marin Cilic, who came through a five-setter against Kazakhstan’s Mikhail Kukushkin, and France’s Jeremy Chardy, who knocked out seventh seed David Ferrer.

French duo Jo-Wilfried Tsonga and Benoit Paire complete the top half of the draw.