NEW YORK — For Lucas Pouille, the fourth time was the charm.
A 22-year-old Frenchman ranked No. 25 in the world, Pouille needed four match points to pull off the biggest upset of this U.S. Open so far, shocking two-time champion Rafael Nadal in a four-hour, seven-minute affair on Arthur Ashe Stadium court, winning 6-1, 2-6, 6-4, 3-6, 7-6 (8-6).
It’s a heartbreaking exit for Nadal, who had won doubles gold at the Olympics three weeks ago and taken fourth place in the singles event, building his confidence with three routine wins before Sunday.
But Pouille, a quarterfinalist at Wimbledon in July, came out firing in set one and then came back from a break down in the fifth set to win the match ultimately in the tiebreak, hitting a whizzing forehand winner on his fourth match point, his 59th winner of the match.
He will face fellow Frenchman Gael Monfils in the quarterfinals, joining Monfils and Jo-Wilfried Tsonga in the last eight. It is the first time in the Open era that three Frenchmen are in the quarterfinals of a major, having last happened at the French Open in 1947 and the U.S. Open in 1927.
"This is my first match on the center court against Rafa, so I couldn’t dream better than this," an emotional Pouille said on court.
Nadal has failed to advance to the quarterfinals at a Grand Slam since the French Open last year, a wrist injury forcing him out midway through that event this year and then of Wimbledon’s entirety.
He looked to be back in form this week in New York, but when it mattered most came up short — literally — as his shots often struggled to find the backcourt.
But after saving three match points having been down 6-3 in the final-set tiebreak, Nadal had a golden chance with a short ball from Pouille. He missed it into the net, putting his hands into his face.
Pouille would seal the match on the next point, hitting that forehand winner and then falling to his back as former French Open champion Yannick Noah watched from his player box. He had been 2-9 at Grand Slams before back-to-back quarterfinals this summer.
"At 6-3 (in the tiebreak), I thought ‘OK, I’m going to win this,' " Pouille said on court. "But then at 6-6, I did not. I’m very happy. This is the most happy I am at the tournament."
He continued: "It’s never over until the last point. I was down a break point in the fifth set, but I didn’t give up."
"It was a big mistake," Nadal admitted of the miss. "But you are 6-all in the tiebreak. I played the right point. I put (myself) in a position to have the winner and I had the mistake. That's it. You cannot go crazy thinking about these kind of things, no? You have a mistake. The opponent played a good point in the match point, and that's it."
Nadal honed in on dropping the break lead at 4-3 serving in the fifth set, when he led 30-love in that game.
Nadal has been impressive this summer with his Rio and New York comeback, but will leave the Grand Slam season having not advanced to the quarterfinals of at least one major for the first time since 2004.
"I need something else. I need something more that was not there today," Nadal told reporters. "I going to keep working to try to find (it)."
Follow Nick McCarvel on Twitter @NickMcCarvel.