New York: Rafael Nadal headed back to Mallorca on Saturday with his US Open campaign over and his career seemingly at the point of no return.
The great Spanish warrior was once again fending off questions over his future in the sport, just as he had done after quarter-final exits at the Australian and French Opens and a second-round loss at Wimbledon.
The 29-year-old, 14-time major winner crashed to his earliest exit in New York in 10 years at the hands of an inspired, straight-shooting Fabio Fognini, the 32nd seed, in the early hours of Saturday.
The third round loss also meant that, for the first time since 2004, Nadal would go through a season without at least one Grand Slam title.
In a 2am media conference full of mixed messages, he admitted that he was slower than in his pomp before quickly qualifying that statement with an insistence that he was only joking.
But the facts tell a different story.
Fognini fired 70 winners past Nadal in his 3-6, 4-6, 6-4, 6-3, 6-4 win, his third victory over the Spaniard this year.
The Italian also broke serve nine times, including seven breaks in succession.
In the first round, teenager Borna Coric took Nadal to four sets, sending 31 winners past his labouring opponent
Even pint-sized Diego Schwartzman guided 28 winners beyond the eighth seed`s reach and broke three times in his second match.
"We can be talking for one hour trying to create a reason. But the sport for me is simple, no? If you are playing with less confidence and you are hitting balls without creating the damage on the opponent that I believe I should do, then they have the possibility to attack," said Nadal, the champion in New York in 2010 and 2013.
"Now it remains to have again the speed, that extra speed on the ball, on the winner. I want the defence a little bit more longer, and hit easier winners.
"Was tough for me to hit winners tonight. But that`s it. Not a big story. Just improve small things that make a big difference."
But the small things have been a long time coming in 2015.
Nadal has already lost 15 times this year compared to 11 in all of 2014, seven in 2013 and just six in 2012.
He has defeated just two top-10 rivals all year and suffered only his second ever career defeat at the French Open, where he had won nine titles.
After Paris, his ranking slumped to 10, his lowest in a decade.
When he lost to Dustin Brown, the dreadlocked world number 102, in the Wimbledon second round, even his coach and uncle Toni feared the worst.
"I want to think that Rafa can win the US Open, but the odds are small. It`s a worrying day," Toni said at the time.
There are constantly questions over Nadal`s fitness after a career-long battle to preserve his knees as fit for purpose.
He has missed seven Grand Slams through injury since his 2003 debut at Wimbledon.
Three of those have come in the last three years.
He skipped the defence of his US Open title in 2014 due to a wrist injury and to add insult to injury he then underwent an appendectomy as he shut down most of the second half of the season.
Nadal has always believed the next two years will be crucial.
After all, his great rival Roger Federer won a seventh Wimbledon when he was almost 31 in 2012.
Many in the sport think that Nadal should follow Federer`s example in another way by hiring extra help to back-up Toni, who has coached him since he was four.
Federer brought Stefan Edberg on board to work alongside longtime coach Severin Luthi.
Novak Djokovic has Boris Becker teamed up with Marian Vajda while Andy Murray works with Jonas Bjorkman and Amelie Mauresmo.
"I would bring in somebody that knows the type of game that Nadal has to play now to get back," legendary coach Nick Bollettieri told CNN.
"Maybe bring in somebody that hears all the gossip on the street, that knows what`s going on."