Second to None

“Bad as you might be feeling now, it’s likely that you’ll never have as good a chance of winning the Australian Open as you do today.”

Toni Nadal to his nephew before the 2009 Australian Open final, Rafa

To fight, at its core, is to suffer. Often fruitlessly. It’s one of the easiest ways to get back into a tennis match in that wanting to win requires no technical skill, but it often does demand intense pain. Rafael Nadal knows this better than anyone. He has extended many matches by multiple hours only to lose them anyway. He has pulled off incredible escapes. But when Nadal blew a 5-3 lead in the second set tiebreak against Daniil Medvedev to go down two sets in the Australian Open final, it seemed that all the fight in the world wouldn’t have helped him. He was two hours into a physical match against a much younger opponent who was more in-form on hard court, to boot.

How do you explain the result we ended up getting, a backbreaking 2-6, 6-7 (5), 6-4, 6-4, 7-5 victory for Rafa? He is 35. At a gargantuan five hours and 24 minutes, this was the second-longest match of his professional career (and Nadal has played some marathons). It’s the longest match he’s ever played and ended up winning. Think about that — Nadal has been serving bigger and trying to end points more quickly in this phase of his career, yet he not only waded into the lava for a war of attrition, he came out on top. He wasn’t supposed to be able to do this anymore; he was getting tired after two quick sets against Matteo Berrettini! Yet in one of the bigger matches of his life, Nadal outlasted a younger, fitter opponent.

The absurdity doesn’t stop there. Nadal had not come back from two sets to love down since Wimbledon in 2007 — that’s almost fifteen years ago. Nadal fights like no one else, yes, but that spirit has tended to result more in epic, unique losses than comeback victories. He makes matches more thrilling, more close than you could ever expect, but he rarely actually wins them from a big deficit. Today, he pulled off a comeback from 2-6, 6-7 (5), 2-3, love-40 against the world number two and reigning U.S. Open champion. Good luck explaining that one to the grandkids. Or tennis analysts.

All in all, Toni turned out to be right. After winning that maiden title in 2009, Nadal fell short in his next four appearances in Australian Open finals. His win over Roger Federer thirteen years ago was a spectacle of shotmaking and incredible court coverage, of mental strength and endurance. And yet, I think today’s title was more improbable.

*****

Nadal’s run to the final had been odd. He played some great tennis, but his opponents never exactly rose to the occasion. Besides a lone break point (saved by an ace) early in the fifth set of his quarterfinal against Shapovalov, Nadal was never behind in a match. He was a relatively heavy underdog entering the final. I was excited to see Nadal get pushed into a corner, since that was what had been missing for me this tournament — the Spaniard had fired his trademark forehands, but hadn’t faced a meaningful enough deficit to have to fight very hard.

The tournament had already been a success for Nadal, but a final is a final, and no finals had been more hostile to him than Australian Open title matches. It didn’t take long for him to start facing the adversity I hoped his opponents would show him. Nadal lost the first set, and lost it in a way that made it seem like a Medvedev win was inevitable. Nadal fought for tough holds in his first two service games, but Medvedev then broke him at love twice in a row. The Russian was making almost all of his returns, running down Nadal’s forehands, and serving bombs. The Spaniard’s slices, once a useful change of pace in baseline rallies against Medvedev, were totally ineffective. That Nadal had ever been able to beat Medvedev felt like an alternate-universe memory.

When Nadal lost the second set despite having a handful of golden opportunities to win it — he had a 4-1 lead in the set, had set point on serve at 5-3, led the tiebreak 5-3, and generally failed to capitalize on Medvedev losing his first serve — the match really felt over. He had reversed some of the overwhelming momentum against him in the first set, but had blown a bunch of chances to even the match, which had now been going on for a physical two hours.

The narrative going into the match was that Nadal would have to win in three or four. He had been visibly tired in several of his matches. Medvedev, meanwhile, played for nearly five hours against Felix Auger-Aliassime in the quarterfinals and rebounded easily to tire out Stefanos Tsitsipas in the semis. Medvedev looked indefatigable. It seemed impossible that Nadal could play his game and win, all the more so from two sets down.

It was a given that the Spaniard would go down swinging, no matter the odds, but the defiance is always impressive. As Nadal vamos-ed his way through a few tough holds in the third set, I was shaking my head in admiration. He was screwed, clearly, but his play-every-point-like-it’s-your-last mentality was allowing him to stay in the moment and not lose hope by looking at the bigger picture. He broke Medvedev at 4-all with a stunning backhand pass and served the set out with four straight winners, celebrating with a prolonged roar at the crowd.

Nadal’s tactical acumen is sometimes buried underneath his spirit. The way the Spaniard played in the fourth set was practically incomparable to the first. Nadal ripped backhand winners down the line, methodically took out Medvedev’s legs with drop shots, and launched sustained rampages with his forehand. Nadal is resilient because of his competitive drive, yes, but his tactical mobility is also a big weapon. In the Roland-Garros semifinal last year, Djokovic was taking over the match with angled crosscourt forehands. In the third set, he won 16 of 17 points in which he was able to pull Nadal outside the doubles alley. Twice down a break in the set, Nadal changed his patterns to deny Djokovic the opportunity to hit that shot as much towards the end of the set, and wound up with a set point at 6-5 in a frame he had trailed in constantly. In this match, Nadal’s backhand down the line — a shot he typically hits centrally to provoke his opponents into hitting crosscourt to his forehand — may have been the shot of the match. He sprayed several clean winners into the corner. It’s not something he’s always comfortable doing, but he did it, and it worked. Nadal’s combination of will and willingness to change is a deadly one.

By the fifth set, Medvedev looked dead on his feet. He served well through much of the set, but early on, when rallies got going, he was almost immediately toast. At 2-all, 30-15, he hit a backhand into Nadal’s forehand that was reminiscent of something I (or Berrettini) would produce from that wing. Nadal annihilated it for a winner. The inevitable tension of a looming title at a stage so important to him complicated the set greatly, but Nadal was easily the better player. He probably should have won the fifth 6-2 or 6-3 instead of 7-5.

By far the most shocking part of this match, for me, was that Nadal seemed not to have a single physical dip in the last three sets. By all reasonable guesses, he would have been gassed to start the third set. Yet he dropped serve just twice in the final three sets. He cut low backhand slices crosscourt to stay in points that barely cleared the net, keeping him alive. As Medvedev got his quads massaged on changeovers, Nadal appeared to feel fine. A common joke regarding Nadal’s notoriously bad Australian Open luck in years past was that he had to make a deal with the devil to give him the extraordinary fitness required to win the title in 2009. Today, it was as if the devil allowed Nadal the use of his young legs one last time.

“He was, I think, stronger than me physically today.”

-Daniil Medvedev on Nadal after the match

*****

The last few years of the Big Three era have been fascinating to watch not just for the incredible standard of tennis, but for the new ways to mirror each other Djokovic and Nadal come up with. Last year, Djokovic took out Rafa at Roland-Garros in a draining semifinal. I didn’t think he had it in him after seven losses to the Spaniard on the Parisian dirt. When Djokovic should have had nothing left, he came back from two sets down against Tsitsipas in the final. Nadal entered this Australian Open without ideal preparation and a difficult draw in front of him. Though his expected quarterfinal opponent failed to materialize, Nadal beat three top-15 players. He was supposed to be physically lacking and played a match longer than any he had won before, and ended up bagging it. The greats continue to evolve, to improve, to win in new ways. The next chapter of the Djokovic-Nadal rivalry and GOAT race looks enticing in light of Nadal’s unexpected durability this tournament. If they’ve both won majors on unfavorable surfaces after beating top contenders in the last year, how long can they continue to dominate their home turf? Now that the finish line of 20 has been moved, how far will they push it? I can’t wait for them to duel for Roland-Garros.

*****

What will stick with me from this match is the mere fact that Nadal won it. At the start of the fifth set, I expected Medvedev to regroup and win. When Medvedev broke Nadal after being down 30-love to stay in the match, I thought he would run away with the momentum. This is the kind of match Nadal loses at the Australian Open! He comes back from a deficit, plays blinding tennis, then either falters at an inopportune moment or has the misfortune to watch his opponent play just a little bit better. It happened at the 2012 and 2017 Australian Open finals (down two sets to one, won the fourth, was up a break in the fifth, lost the match). When Nadal served for the final at 5-4 in the fifth and went up 30-love, he looked home free. Then he made a handful of unforced errors, including a double fault, and he looked primed for his most harrowing loss yet: he had levitated out of the jaws of defeat only to slip and fall as he went to climb to safe ground.

Left: Nadal after losing the 2012 Australian Open final. Right: Nadal after winning a similarly draining match in the 2022 final.

Even when Nadal had leads in the fifth set, there were times when I thought Medvedev would win. At 3-2, 40-15, Nadal had a forehand putaway, guessed the wrong side, and got dragged into a multi-deuce game in which he had to save three break points (all with unreturned sliders out wide, interestingly).

Nadal managed to avoid this fate. With Medvedev serving at 5-5, 30-15, he ran down a drop shot and passed the Russian with a crosscourt dink that barely snuck over the net. Had he lost that point, Medvedev probably would have held for 6-5, leaving Nadal’s chances in the mud. (Had Rafa held serve to survive, he’d have had to play a match tiebreak. He hasn’t won a tiebreak against a top ten player for over two years.) He didn’t avoid another hellish loss by much, but he did do it.

*****

Before this tournament, I posited that for Nadal, the joy of tennis is in the fight, not the results. That in a way, he’s okay with losing if he gets to engage in an almighty struggle. I wondered if that was the case for this match, though. Yes, much of the last four sets were fiercely competitive, just the kind of war Nadal has built a career by waging, but I think this one was different. After Nadal placed his final volley out of Medvedev’s reach but far enough inside the lines there was no way he could miss it, he dropped his racket and covered his face with his hands. He beamed, and then he shook his head.

Disbelief. Screenshot: Australian Open YouTube Channel

Nadal has now won 21 majors, and he has celebrated 17 of them by falling to the ground in elation. Three of the times he didn’t were after straight-set drubbings of finals. Then there was this one. When Nadal falls to the ground, it strikes me as a brief afterlife to the intense spirit of a major final, the competitiveness requiring a couple seconds to exit his body. After this match, though, it left immediately (perhaps because Nadal had no remaining energy to keep it contained), leaving only joy and disbelief. I think he wanted to win another Australian Open, wanted it more than he’s wanted most anything else, even an intense battle. And he got it.

I wrote that in fighting hard and still losing, Nadal extracts a level of play from his opponent that transcends the sport and the result. The cruel paradox is that the pure theater comes at a price of brutal losses for the fighter; his pain is quite literally our gain. Today, for the first time in an Australian Open final since 2009, his opponent folded in the face of his spirit. Not completely — Medvedev made an impressive recovery after going down 3-2 in the fifth, his shots recovering some zip and length — but Nadal was rarely under scoreboard pressure in the fifth set. He broke down his opponent enough to put the match on his racket by the end, and when trying to serve it out for a second time, he did not miss.

*****

When Nadal’s contests take on a special kind of intensity, you can sometimes sense the spiritual weariness in his reactions. He still snarls, but his face becomes tinged with fatigue, or even fear. Nadal served for the match a second time and went up 30-love again. To lose the next point would have meant an instant flashback to getting broken two games earlier; to win the next point meant certain victory at 40-love. Nadal smashed an untouched serve out wide. The let radar beeped, but it went unnoticed all around (not a small detail!), scoring the serve as an ace. Nadal pumped his fist, but gently. He had a soft grimace on his face. The defiance was still there, as always, but it was like he was thinking oh, thank god, I can rest soon. The euphoric disbelief came one point later.

Can there be a better advertisement for never giving up in sport than the way Rafael Nadal won this match? There will be obstacles. Adversaries will perform well. You will hurt. You will suffer. Things will look bleak. But if you stick around, really stick around, good things will happen.

In the epic novel of the Big Three, Nadal has so often been second. He was #2 behind Federer for four years, then trailed Djokovic for much of the next decade. Nadal has been the chaser, the rival. He has amazed in his defeats and won many compelling matches as #2 in the world, but he has been second nonetheless. He might still be second when Djokovic takes the court again, who may well be hungrier than ever. But this is Rafa’s moment. He’s won 21 major titles. One more than Djokovic, one more than Federer. He has suffered for so many years in trying to fight past his rivals, his injuries, and himself at times. Nadal has overcome it all. He has been second for so long, and after yet another almighty effort, he is now first.

Published by Owen

Owen has been a tennis fan since Roland-Garros in 2016. Initially a Federer fan, his preferences evened out the more tennis he watched and the more he learned. He started a blog (https://racketblog.com/) in early 2019. In the summer of 2021, he got a media credential at the ATP 250 event in Newport, Rhode Island, and got to talk to a few players, including former world No. 5 Kevin Anderson and rising star Jenson Brooksby. Owen will argue to the death that the 2009 Australian Open semifinal between Rafael Nadal and Fernando Verdasco is the greatest match ever, he hates that one-handed backhands are praised so often for their subjective elegance (sucking praise away from the more effective two-handers), and he thinks the best part of tennis is its scoring system, the mental and physical challenge not far behind. You can follow him on Twitter @tennisnation.

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