World number one Rafael Nadal overcame some early struggles, particularly with his return of serve, to advance to the fourth round of the US Open late on Saturday night with a four-set win. Nadal had never lost a set to Leonardo Mayer before in his career, but struggled to get returns in play, especially on break points, in the opening set and found himself having to battle back from a set down for the second match in a row. But once the Spaniard got the break in the second set, it was one-way traffic as the top seed cruised into the last sixteen with a 6-7(3), 6-3, 6-1, 6-4 victory.
Mayer weathers early storm
The world number one got off to a slow start, having to overcome a pair of double faults in the opening game of the match to hold. It did not take long for Nadal to start to find a rhythm. A tightly-angled backhand return set up double break point in the fourth game, but the Spaniard could not convert. He would hold four break points in the game, but after Mayer saved the first with an ace, the Spaniard would give away the next three all with errors.
In his next return game, Nadal against held a 15-40 edge, but continued to struggle with errors and could not convert. Despite doing a good job of saving break points, Mayer was having no success on the Nadal serve, failing to bring up a single break point in the set. The set required a tiebreak, which the Argentine dominated. Nadal netted a forehand to hand Mayer the minibreak at 3-2 and the underdog never looked back. He would stretch the lead to 5-2 before a Nadal backhand into the net gave him four set points. The top seed sent his return long on the second to surrender the opening set.
Nadal finally breaks through
After having no opportunities on his opponent’s serve in the opening set, Mayer had a chance to take a stranglehold on the match early in the second when he took a 0-30 lead on the Nadal serve, eventually hitting a huge forehand to bring up his first two break points of the match. However, he borrowed some of Nadal’s struggles, missing both returned. The failure to break very nearly came back to bite the Argentine in the following game when he was forced to save three break points in a ten-minute game, eventually holding for 3-2.
Another epic Mayer service game ensued two games later. At 3-3, 30-30, the Argentine went for a forehand winner down the line but sent it wide for break points. Nadal would net his backhand, falling to 0-for-10 on break points in the match. The Spaniard soon held a second break point, but once again failed to put a second serve return in play, the fifth time he’d done so on break point in the match. Two more break points would come and go before Nadal miraculously smacked a backhand lob perfectly over the head of Mayer to set up another break point. At the fifth time of asking in the game, and fourteenth time overall in the match, the world number one hit a huge forehand return into his opponent’s feet and Mayer sent his own forehand wide to finally surrender the break.
The break opened the flood gates for the top seed. From deuce in that seventh game, starting with that incredible backhand lob, Nadal won nine points in a row, consolidating the break with a hold to love before taking a 0-40 lead as Mayer served to stay in the set. The Argentine would step up and save the first two set points, but on the third, he attacked the net and drove the ball to the Spaniard’s forehand corner, only for Nadal to chase it down and rip a massive crosscourt forehand passing shot winner to wrap up the set, eliciting a massive roar and fist pump from the world number one.
Top seed starts to roll
It looked very briefly like Mayer would be able to stay in the match as he took a 0-30 lead on the Spaniard’s serve in the opening game of the third set, only for Nadal to quickly reclaim the momentum by reeling off four straight points to hold. The world number one then rode that momentum to an early break in the second set, as he brought up double break point in the Argentine’s opening service game and Mayer would hand over the break when he sent a forehand long.
Nadal would hold to take a 3-0, winning his seventh consecutive game dating back to 2-3 in the second set. Mayer finally broke the run with a hold in the fourth game, but he could do nothing to slow Nadal’s momentum. With Mayer serving down 1-4, 15-30, Nadal muscled a tightly-angled backhand crosscourt for a winner and double break point. After the Spaniard missed his return on the first, Mayer would double fault the break away. Nadal then easily held to love to claim the third set after only 27 minutes.
Nadal powers into last 16
Nadal wasted no time in seizing control of the fourth set, pulling a forehand winner up the line out of nowhere to set up a break point. He would net his backhand at 30-40, but curled a forehand passing shot winner around Mayer from well outside the court for a second look, but again missed his return. Finally, Mayer committed back-to-back unforced errors, including a missed volley on break point, to surrender the early lead to the world number one.
Nadal added a second break at 4-2 when Mayer sent a forehand long to put the Spaniard within a game of victory. Serving for the match, Nadal finally blinked, falling behind break point and sending an easy forehand up the line wide to surrender the break. But serving for the match a second time at 5-4, the Spaniard made no mistake hanging on to book his place in the last sixteen for the fifth major in a row.
By the numbers
Nadal was abnormally poor on his second serve return, only winning 43 percent of those points. His break point conversion rate was also far below his usual level. He started the match 0-13 on break points, finishing 6-25. However, he was generally dominant on his own serve, saving two of the three he faced. While Mayer struck more winners than the world number one, 45 to 39, he also doubled Nadal’s unforced error tally, 52 to 26. One particularly bright spot for the Spaniard was his net game. Nadal won 19 of 23 (83 percent) of his net points in the match.
Nadal will do battle with Alexandr Dolgopolov for a spot in the quarterfinals. Nadal has not advanced past the round of sixteen at the US Open since winning the title in 2013.