Rafael Nadal, former world number one and two-time winner at the U.S. Open, fairly cruised into the fourth round at the U.S. Open. Seeded fourth, the mighty Majorcan appeared to have fully recovered from the injuries that forced him to pull out of his favorite major, the French Open, in June. He won Olympic gold at the Rio Olympics, partnering with the Catalan Marc Lopez in doubles, and went through the first week at Flushing Meadows dropping only one set, to Italy’s Andreas Seppi, and appeared confident, relaxed (by his high-energy standards), and ready to break through to the quarters.
He was creamed in the first set of his fourth round match, 6-1. It was like a slap in the face, coming from a 23-year old with scarcely a record to boast of. Lucas Pouille played with a calm power that suggests the style of Juan-Martin Del Potro, deep hard groundstrokes, accurate shots to the corners and the lines, a booming first serve and what was perhaps most striking, a complete refusal to be intimidated by the fourth seed and heavy favorite.
Del Potro, and some of America’s Jack Sock, too. The Nebraskan, who is Pouille’s age whose own lighting fast forehand was doing steady work all week too, met another Frenchman, the veteran Jo-Wilfred Tsonga, earlier in the day. Tsonga was favored, but Sock has been improving steadily all summer and he was coming off a straight set, 90-minute takedown of the 2014 title winner, Marin Cilic of Croatia.
But the unknown Pouille was something of a revelation. He and Nadal played before a nearly packed Arthur Ashe Stadium crowd in the last match of the day session. Because no one knew him, outside a few French sports writers, every move he made seemed fresh and brash. But it was his calm under fire that most impressed, after Nadal had righted the ship and come back, 6-2, only to get another shock in the next set, 6-4, before steadying the match again at 6-3 in the fourth set with what looked like a dominant game.
Pouille stayed calm. The match was being played under the lights (and nearly 18 thousand pairs of eyes) as evening fell over one of the great courts of the sport. He might have had stage fright or something. Rather, he seemed oblivious to it all, played his game with a consistency that even had Nadal shaking his head repeatedly.
In the fifth set, Nadal’s famous stamina and combativeness, fully on display in the fourth, appeared to be wearing down the fit Frenchman (six one, hundred and eighty, about the same as Nadal) with the sandy hair and open-faced good looks that, come to think of it, are another reminder of Jack Sock, whose light beard he might also have copied, unless it is the other way around of course, or pure coincidence. But not so: a brief moment of apparent wilting when he fell behind 2-4 was reversed by a mighty second wind and suddenly there they were, 6-6, going into the ultimate nail-biter in a tennis slam: the fifth set tie break.
A few hours earlier Gael Monfils was asked about Rafa Nadal. What’s it like to play him? “It’s great. Unbelievable. Rafa is very strong, he’s like legend of the sport.” Having won his match, he was assumed to be due for a meeting with Rafa in the quarters.
Since Monfils, the most gifted tennis player of his generation, according to almost every observer, next to Roger Federer (who is about five years older), had prevailed over the tough, shrewd, consistent Marcos Baghdatis, in straight sets. Monfils had played a power baseline game to pull ahead by two sets, but in the third, visibly exhausted, he began using a combination of slices and drop shots. They did not disconcert Baghdatis, who replied in kind, but in the end the French ace’s athleticism was too much for the Cypriot’s; he speeded across the court to catch everything. Baghdatis sent him. Serving to stay in the match at 3-5, Baghdatis netted what would have been a great backhand to end it.
What would have been: the thought always returns, and it is one of the reasons tennis, like other competitive sports, contains such inherent drama. For if-only’s, Nadal surely has the right attitude: “You think about it, you go crazy, no?” he replied to the obvious question, after it was over. He had rallied fantastically from a 3-6 deficit in the tie break, only to put an easy, shallow ball, what is called a sitter, into the net instead of crunching it past Pouille who was standing helpless to one side following a slow second serve (clocked at 85 mph) and a short exchange from the baseline.
What made Rafa miss? Coaches may ask that, not players. Now it was 7-6 for Pouille, with Nadal on serve, the first one a must-win. Pouille put a forehand from the baseline right down the deuce side, hitting the sideline like a marksman, and Nadal could only look at it.
Pouille, who is from the north of France near Dunkirk, where people tend to be strong on endurance, played two five-setters in the past days, coming back from 0-2 in the first and 1-2 in the second. His steadiness under pressure is perhaps the main difference with Jack Sock, the American he most resembles in his style of play.
Sock has the best American forehand in the game today, though his teenage compatriots, who all did well with honorable exits in the first week, may be giving him competition soon in that department. But he wears himself out by overusing it, for the good reason he does not have anywhere near so strong a backhand. In the middle of the day, at a totally packed Louis Armstrong Stadium Sock was worn down in the fourth set by Jo-Wilfred Tsonga, whose all-court game his rivals ought to study. Like Monfils, when he is on his game Tsonga can do anything, and usually does it with panache. It got to where Sock’s redoubtable forehand was betraying him, as much due to Tsonga’s relentlessly varied pressure as to fatigue.
Sock ran for president this summer, nominated by one of his sponsors, but cheerfully avoided making speeches or taking positions. American men are, in fact, in the best position they have known in many years. Though out of the singles draw in the second week, they can all say without boast that they are improving in most respects.
The French, also suffering from a long drought in majors and Davis Cup dominance, can take inspiration from the three musketeers who prevailed on the weekend; there have not been three French quarter finalists at a major in as long as anyone remembers: probably not since the heyday of the original Mousquetaires who, led by René Lacoste, found a way to beat Bill Tilden, putting an end to 1920s American tennis mastery and holding on to it until Fred Perry and Don Budge restored Anglosphere power.
It was, in fact, supposed to happen earlier: Tsonga and Monfils and the others in their cohort, Richard Gasquet and Julien Benneteau and Jeremy Chardy, were dubbed “nouveaux mousquetaires” when they seemed to be taking over at the turn of the century, only to be turned back by a great generation of Spaniards and a certain Swiss master.
The legend of the musketeers is maintained in France, but somewhat dimly: you can go to Roland Garros and stand next to their bronze statues near center court, and ask people who they represent, and chances are you will get blanks.
In the original epic tale, which is concerned with saving France during the complicated civil and international wars of the early 18th century, the three musketeers are joined by a dashing novice from the southwest named d’Artagnan, and eventually he wins the confidence of the older soldiers and becomes their captain. You never know, but who is to say if a kid from the north is not just the fellow to take charge of a still-mighty band of aces and lead them to glory. At any rate, the draw’s iron logic obligates at least one Frenchman to reach the semis, with Monfils and Pouille battling in the quarters on Tuesday for a spot and Tsonga meeting the No. 1 seed Novak Djokovic (who lives in Monte Carlo, a French protectorate).
From somewhere, Cardinal Richelieu is, one guesses, smiling.