Killing Ghosts

Rivalries are one of the trickier parts of tennis for a top player. Rafael Nadal might have 21 major titles, more than any man to ever play the game, but he can also tell you all about how hard it is to break a mental block. In 2011, Novak Djokovic beat him six times in a row. After the first win, there was definitely a sense of the top of men’s tennis shifting around Djokovic’s presence, but after the sixth, the question was who could possibly displace the Serb from world number one, and if Nadal could possibly recover ground in the matchup.

It’s worth noting just how dominant Djokovic was against Nadal by the end of 2011. The third set of their U.S. Open final is regarded as one of the best sets ever, the epitome of never quitting on Nadal’s part (he won the set 7-6 (3), recovering from a break down three different times). Thing was, Djokovic then won the fourth set 6-1. Nadal’s refusal to quit on a match made things more complicated, but only marginally. Djokovic had to stomp on him a million times to turn out the lights, but in the end, Nadal was still the bug and Djokovic was still doing the stomping.

One of the worst parts of a difficult matchup is the way it spirals out of control. The fact that “it would have been nice” if David Ferrer had beaten Roger Federer once, just once, didn’t make it any likelier (he ended his career 0-for-17). The more the losses pile up, the harder it is to win. Nadal eventually broke that losing streak against Djokovic, but not before enduring another hellish loss, this one at the 2012 Australian Open.

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Rivalries are often characterized by tactics, or conditions, or in the case of an even matchup, simply who played better. The rest of the time, rivalries are characterized by pain. Daniil Medvedev understands what I mean. He’s played Nadal five times now, and impressively, he’s given himself a fighting chance in four of those five matches. He has also lost four of those five matches. Two of the losses were five-setters practically screenwritten to be as painful as possible. In the 2019 U.S. Open final, Medvedev trailed Nadal by two sets and a break. On tired legs, he fought back, stealing the third and claiming the fourth with outrageous tennis (like this return winner). Medvedev had break points early in the fifth, and for just a moment one of the greatest comebacks of all time looked probable. Then he lost. In the 2022 Australian Open final, Medvedev was an inch away from going up two sets and a break. Nadal trailed 2-6, 6-7 (5), 2-3, love-40. Medvedev lost that match too.

Two entries for the #ScorelinesOfPain Hall of Fame. Just look at the scores of the sets Medvedev lost — 7-5, 6-3, 6-4, 6-4, 6-4, 7-5. All of those are close, with Medvedev never losing a set by more than one break. To make matters worse, in all six of those sets, all six, there was at least one Nadal service game where Medvedev had break point(s) and failed to convert.

Can you imagine how Medvedev will feel playing Nadal after that, a man who has crushed his heart in two drastically different ways? It must be like looking miserably over the net at an ex-partner who immediately started to flourish in your absence, despite your best efforts to make the relationship work. What if, when he next plays Nadal, Medvedev wins the first set 6-2 again? He will probably think of Australia. What if Nadal saves break points early in a deciding set? He will probably think of New York. Spiritually, he’s going to be dogpiled by demons from the first ball.

What’s great about tennis, though, is that you can keep giving yourself chances to break a player’s stranglehold on your game and on your heart. Lost in the Indian Wells final? You can get revenge in mere weeks in the Miami final. Lost in a major final? There’s no months-long break, you could play your tormentor again in the next tournament.

This is where Daniil Medvedev found himself heading into the Acapulco semifinals. Though the semis of a 500 doesn’t compare in magnitude to the finals of a major, it was an opportunity to kill the ghosts haunting him from previous losses to Nadal. The match felt important — Medvedev has recently obtained the world number one ATP ranking, the first non-Big-Four member to hold it since Andy Roddick in early 2004. It’s been 18 years!

Medvedev deserves the ranking as much as one could. He’s slowly worked his way up the ladder by winning progressively bigger tournaments, a process that culminated in blocking Djokovic from the Calendar Grand Slam with a straight-set U.S. Open final victory. I started to wonder, though, how Medvedev would feel if he lost to Nadal again. That would make a second win over the Russian on hard courts this year alone, and a fifth win out of six matches. Medvedev wouldn’t be in the territory Nadal found himself in mid-2011, where the Spaniard was #1 despite a string of four straight losses to Djokovic (two of them on clay), but the feeling might be similar. I’m the best, or at least this number says I am, but I can’t beat this one guy. Just this one guy!

Now, Medvedev is finely tuned mentally — you have to be to compete professionally at all, much less become the best player in the world. That’s in territory I can’t relate to, though. Whatever goes on in his head that allows him not to start crying whenever he sees Nadal across the net is a mystery to me. So I was fascinated about this rematch of the Australian Open final, and mostly because of Medvedev. The stakes are pretty low for Nadal, who has said he’s not concerned with ranking and has little at stake rivalry-wise. Medvedev, though, seems an enigmatic party. Would he change his tactics; how would he finish points on the molasses-slow Acapulco court? Would he falter with the finish line in sight, like he did in Melbourne? Would he be able to ignore the ghosts for long enough to win on tennis rather than lose on nerves?

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The finish line never even appeared over the horizon. Nadal won 6-3, 6-3 and never dropped his serve. This is not an ideal result for someone set to take over the number one ranking. For the first hour of the match, Medvedev’s difficulties in the matchup seemed so intense as to not even give nerves a chance to make a difference. Nadal made three unforced errors in the first set. He returned Medvedev’s serve back deep. For Medvedev’s part, he failed to make a dent on the return, which is uncharacteristic for him, but when Nadal isn’t making errors, there’s only so much you can do.

The second hour of the match had patches of pure glory.

Medvedev had eleven break point chances in the second set. Eleven! They were concentrated in two games, even! Having struggled to win rallies and take the offense in the first set, he started to flatten out his groundstrokes, hitting closer to the lines. His returning improved. He threw in a few beautiful drop shots. Nadal, however, tapped into a level rarely seen since his prime years. He dominated on the big points.

On Medvedev’s third break point, he committed to pinning Nadal in the deuce corner, something he was previously yet to do. Medvedev rolled crosscourt forehands into the service box a la Djokovic last year at Roland-Garros. When Nadal sliced them back, Medvedev kept at the tactic. Despite being the best one available to him, it didn’t work. Nadal hit a backhand down the line, coaxing Medvedev to go crosscourt with his own backhand. Nadal destroyed a forehand down the line, then sprinted to net to put away an easy volley. It was an emphatic destruction of one of the few strategies that tends to work on him. I tweeted that when Nadal played like that, he couldn’t be stopped. When Nadal held after saving a fourth break point, I figured Medvedev would get broken again and go down 6-3, 6-1.

Instead, Medvedev held to love, then threw himself into an even wilder Nadal service game. He crushed a forehand winner down the line. His touch is not the best, but he flicked delightful drop shot winners. Nadal had been serving down the middle almost exclusively on the deuce side, but when he tried to mix it up at one point, Medvedev read the wide serve and blasted a passing shot the Spaniard couldn’t handle. It was sublime tennis. Medvedev reached break point a staggering seven times, but each time Nadal took control with a good first serve, or a wicked inside-out forehand, or a delicate drop shot. Medvedev couldn’t play a single one on his terms.

Losing to Nadal 6-3, 6-3 will not kill the ghosts that haunt Medvedev. Failing to convert eleven break points will probably even make them a bit stronger. Still, there’s little shame in losing to a Nadal who was as close to his peak as he’s been for a while, in a match whose second set scoreline is as deceiving as it gets. For my money, Medvedev should be angrier about taking an hour to get into the match than about not being able to break serve.

So Medvedev sinks to 1-5 against Nadal. He has now lost the last five sets he has played against the Spaniard. Today, though, it didn’t feel like he lost because of an Australian Open-induced hangover, it felt like he just didn’t play well enough for a while, then his opponent did amazing things once Medvedev found his footing. And if the takeaway from this match is that Nadal still does amazing things at his best, I’d say Medvedev is doing okay, ghosts that trail him and all.

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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