Reliving Nadal-Medvedev at the Australian Open

Screenshot: Australian Open

The 2022 Australian Open final between Daniil Medvedev and Rafael Nadal wasn’t just one of the better matches of the year, it may have been the most pivotal. In winning from two sets (and 2-3, love-40 in the third) down, Nadal secured his 21st major title, which broke a tie with Novak Djokovic and Roger Federer at 20. Much of Nadal’s momentum in his 20-match winning streak to begin this year also likely originated from winning that unlikely title. Medvedev, meanwhile, has struggled since losing his choke hold on the final. He’s won a couple small titles, but for the most part, he has failed to play his best, and it’s cost him: He no longer has control over his rivalries with Stefanos Tsitsipas and Andrey Rublev and his ranking has fallen from first to seventh.

In the five hours and 24 minutes it took to decide that Australian Open final, forehands and backhands were hit that are still having an impact on the tour nearly 11 months later. With the next Australian Open not too far away, I wanted to return to the fateful match. Did Medvedev choke? If so, what was the moment? How did Nadal turn things around? I rewatched the final and kept a running log of my thoughts below. Time stamps correspond to the video below in case you want to revisit an important moment.

0:13: Nadal plays a very strong first point, scything a couple crosscourt forehands at extreme angles. Medvedev is yanked far enough off the court by the second one that he has to guess where the next ball is going, and Nadal flicks a winner past him. The narrative going into this match was that if Nadal were to win, he’d have to do it economically, so the opening point seemed like an ideal start.

6:15: Nadal holds after one deuce. It took six minutes.

7:33: An interesting wrinkle on the first point of Medvedev’s service game: midway through the rally, on a seemingly neutral ball, Nadal jacks a crosscourt backhand as hard as he can, drawing oohs from the crowd. But what the backhand has in pace it lacks in aggressive placement, so Medvedev gets it back fairly easily, and goes on to win the point.

11:20: At 1-all, love-15 on Nadal’s serve, the first alarm bells go off for the Spaniard. Medvedev locks him in a 26-shot rally — not ideal given Medvedev had looked by far the fitter player earlier in the tournament — and blasts a backhand winner down the line.

I remember watching most of Nadal’s matches this tournament, and it’s hard to overstate the doubts about his fitness levels. He had flirted with blowing two-set leads all tournament — he lost the third to Karen Khachanov, the third and the fourth to Denis Shapovalov, who may have beaten him had he not completely crumbled in the fifth set, and the third to Matteo Berrettini. He seemed to be tiring regularly in third sets, even when he had the lead. Personally, against Medvedev, I gave Nadal next to no chance of winning. Even if he could build a lead — which would be way harder against Medvedev than against the players he had already beaten — I thought he would have a hard time closing out the match.

13:00: With a love-30 lead on Nadal’s serve, Medvedev has a putaway right on top of the net, but he smashes it down the middle and Nadal’s long left arm somehow flicks a forehand past the onrushing octopus. It gets Nadal to 15-30 and he eventually holds, but at the time, the hold felt tenuous. The way Nadal was winning points didn’t seem sustainable at all, while Medvedev’s rock-solid baselining looked as reproducible as anything.

13:00: It’s worth mentioning here that early on, Medvedev looks totally unperturbed. Nadal had used the slice to disrupt his rhythm in the past, but Medvedev was impervious to it at the start of this match. With a previously useful tool for Nadal apparently no longer effective, his odds looked even more daunting.

24:43: Through four games, the average rally length is 8 shots.

28:30: In Nadal’s 2-all service game, Medvedev hits two winners and Nadal misses two backhands. Medvedev breaks at love in what feels like sixty seconds.

36:10: Nadal double faults twice in a row to begin the 2-4 game, looking considerably rattled at this point.

36:50: In the next rally, Nadal curls a forehand down the line that brushes the outside of the sideline. Medvedev returns it. Lost for ideas, Nadal tries either a short slice or a bad drop shot, and Medvedev easily runs it down and puts it away. The rally feels decisive — like Medvedev’s defense had reached a point where the court wasn’t wide enough for Nadal to hit a winner against him.

What’s remarkable about Medvedev’s get here is that he doesn’t even have to work that hard to get to the ball. He slides after making contact, but only barely. His defense is just astonishing at its best. Screenshot: Australian Open

41:34: Medvedev serves out the set, 6-2. He won 16 of the last 18 points of the set, broke Nadal at love twice in a row, and lost six total points on serve.

What sticks out in rewatching the match at this point is that Nadal definitely started playing better to get his teeth into the final, but Medvedev had to start playing worse as well. The Russian’s execution in the first set was absurdly tight, and once Nadal’s well of hot shots dried up, the opener was a rout. I had thought at the time that Medvedev — who was coming off his first major title and a generally strong indoor season — was ready to seriously take it to Djokovic and Nadal by winning a second straight major. In the first set, he looked every bit like the best player in the world. Alas, his level didn’t last, and neither did his momentum.

Set 2

43:00: A stat from the good folks at the Australian Open: 38% of Nadal’s first serves went unreturned in his first six rounds; just 14% got him free points in the first set against Medvedev.

49:02: With Medvedev serving at 0-1, 15-love in the second set, Nadal gets back a huge serve and gets into the rally. He crushes a forehand down the line with a louder-than-usual grunt. Medvedev defends, neutralizes, and forces a Nadal backhand error on the 19th shot of the point. It feels like another demoralizing blow to Nadal. When you combine Medvedev’s long rally prowess with his big first serve — he hits his fifth ace later in the game; Nadal is yet to get a single one — it is hard to imagine Medvedev losing the match. Or any match on hard court.

54:05: As of 1-1, 30-15 in the second set, Nadal has hit 20 unforced errors. This feels high; he’s been relatively aggressive, but not to the degree he needs to be to seriously trouble Medvedev’s defenses. Medvedev has 7, an average of less than one per game.

1:00:25: We get the first momentum shift in Nadal’s favor, as the Spaniard wins a 40-shot rally with an insane backhand drop shot. The shot comes out of nowhere: Medvedev hit a very solid crosscourt forehand and Nadal, slightly on the stretch, reached to his right with an almost casual motion and feathered the winner over the net. The crowd goes nuts. Nadal gets to 15-40 on Medvedev’s serve with the rally, the first time he’s seen a break point all match. The point is also contradictory of the match preview and the match so far: it was the longest rally of the match — advantage Medvedev — but Nadal seemed fine physically and finished it off with a touch of brilliance.

1:05:59: Having broken serve for the first time in the previous game, Nadal consolidates at love to go up 4-1, and now the match really does feel different. Medvedev’s airtight baselining has tapered off a bit, and in conjunction with the 40-shot rally, Nadal has serious momentum.

1:08:54: Medvedev is making 80% of his first serves; Nadal is at 50%. Deeply impressive on the part of the former, but also perhaps a sign of how the match could change if Medvedev’s well-above-average execution dovetails even slightly.

1:11:00: Nadal begins his 4-2 service game with a forehand error, then Medvedev sizzles a backhand winner down the line. At love-30, Nadal hits a crazy second serve — a spin-loaded comet that swerves visibly and barely brushes the T — and Medvedev still gets it back. Though Nadal puts away the next shot, the match is back to feeling like it’s on Medvedev’s terms.

1:13:54: Medvedev breaks back, Nadal’s amazing second serve responsible for the only point the Spaniard won in the game.

1:19:54: Medvedev totally loses his first serve in the 3-4 game. Nadal breaks at 30, pushing his opponent back with a big inside-out forehand and finishing with a drop shot that leaves Medvedev slipping and sliding on the Melbourne letters behind the baseline. With the set feeling like a must-win stanza for Nadal at the time (obviously a bad take in hindsight), the break felt huge.

1:27:00: At some point during the 5-3 game, it becomes clear that Nadal just isn’t playing well enough. He fights through a bunch of break points with winners, and there’s a moment where it seems like he’s going to win the set. But despite having a set point, Nadal ends up getting broken, and not because of a burst of brilliance from Medvedev. While the Spaniard is playing plenty of coherent points, errors are seeping into his game consistently. This game had a shanked forehand, a missed smash, and an errant backhand pass with most of the court open.

1:42:30: It must be said at this point: this is not a classic tennis match. In Nadal’s 5-all game, the Spaniard hits a number of great shots, but more and more of his groundstrokes are falling short. Some of them, jarringly, are landing halfway up the net. I remember feeling frustrated for Nadal when I watched this part of the match at around 4:30 on a Sunday morning in January: all that heartbreak for Nadal in previous Australian Open finals, this unlikely run to one last title match, and here he had shown up with nothing close to his best. Whether nerves or fatigue were responsible I had no idea, but Nadal looked as irritated as anyone. Despite Nadal escaping with the hold, I thought the game was a bad omen for his future in the final.

1:52:34: At 5-6, 30-all, two points away from giving up the second set to Nadal, Medvedev flings an ace down the middle. He holds. At the time, when the second set went to a tiebreak, I couldn’t imagine a scenario in which Nadal lost the breaker and won the match. It wasn’t just that overcoming a two-set lead against Medvedev would be extremely difficult, it was that the second set was brutally long, and I didn’t like Nadal’s odds of playing three more competitive sets against Medvedev without completely gassing out, much less winning them.

1:59:18: Nadal grabs a mini-break at 3-all with a solid backhand return followed by an inside-in forehand that comes pretty close to both lines. It’s a great play; at this point, it seems like raw (and accurate) aggression is the only route to a Nadal win.

2:01:08: At 5-3 and 5-4 up in the tiebreak, Nadal comes to net — not behind bad shots, either — and both times, Medvedev hits good passes that force Nadal into errors. After drawing Nadal to net with a drop shot and ramming a backhand past him, Medvedev has set point. Nadal hasn’t made the most of his chances this set, but I don’t think he did much wrong here; Medvedev just entered a purple patch at a great time.

2:03:43: Had Medvedev won the match, the set point in the second set might have become the most famous point of the final. Nadal plays a clearheaded point: forehand crosscourt, forehand down the line, backhand volley into the open court. He executed all the shots pretty well. Against most other players, it probably would have been enough. Against Medvedev, it wasn’t even close — the Russian’s lightning-quick legs see him get back both forehands, then get him in position for a clean backhand pass down the line so easily that he doesn’t even really have to slide into the shot. Medvedev celebrates emphatically; the crowd cheers and then boos as they, for whatever reason, feel that an extended celebration of a brilliant shot is unsportsmanlike. The match seems over.

Medvedev asks for approval from the unforgiving crowd following his sensational defense on set point. Screenshot: Australian Open

Set 3

2:08:35: Nadal is clearly going for more on his forehand in the first game of the third set. He’s letting it fly, scything through the shot rather than looping it, and the extra aggression helps a bit. He opens up a 15-30 lead, then a massive inside-out forehand gives him a putaway right on the service line. Nadal crushes it inside-in — only Medvedev is waiting in the corner and backhands the ball right past Nadal. It’s a demoralizing blow to the Spaniard, who had bossed a couple rallies in a row.

One stat Nadal leads comfortably through the whole match is forehand winners, and it’s here that we can see one of the few holes in Medvedev’s game. Ideally, a player uses their forehand as a sword — their primary weapon — and their backhand as a shield, a solid wing that won’t break down. It’s not that having a powerful backhand is impossible, but the forehand, being hit with the dominant arm, is usually the much more explosive shot. But Medvedev’s forehand, in this match (and probably in general), is less effective than his backhand at hitting winners. His backhand is absolutely superb and does score him quite a few winners, but I don’t think a player should want or have to count on their less powerful wing to deliver point-ending shots. When Nadal’s own backhand levels up midway through the match, he’s capable of killing a point with both wings, giving him a significant advantage in firepower over Medvedev.

It’s not that Medvedev’s forehand weakness is destroying him — he’s a set away from winning the Australian Open title. But as the match wears on, his inability to finish points consistently with that shot hurts him more and more. (See break point at 5-all in the fifth set.)

Nadal keeps blasting away through the game, eventually bringing up break point. He gets in a really deep return only to follow it with a blown forehand, and his reaction afterwards says it all.

Screenshot: Australian Open

Medvedev holds. It’s here that we get the now-famous shot of the Infosys win predictor: from 36% before the match, Nadal is now deemed to have a 4% chance of winning.

2:18:14: Medvedev strings together a pair of forehand winners to go up love-30 in Nadal’s 0-1 service game. But Nadal is able to hold, slinging some point-ending forehands and a big serve. His one-point-at-a-time mentality is on display here — there’s every reason for him to get demoralized at this stage, having lost a heartbreakingly close second set, missing a break point in the previous game, and falling behind in his first service game of the third. Yet Nadal stays calm, hits some spots, and digs out the hold. It’s a small victory in the moment, but one whose significance is magnified in retrospect.

2:23:54: Medvedev does a beautiful job of dictating a point, hammering a backhand down the line before forcing Nadal’s error with some fine angled forehands. Nadal hunches over for a second after the rally, planting his racket head on his left foot and leaning forward slightly. I had missed this on the first watch, but it’s little details like this that, besides the scoreline, made a Medvedev win look inevitable.

2:29:24: Two and a half sets into this match, the average rally length is still a brutally long 7 shots. A little later, we see a graphic that says Medvedev is winning 58% of 0-4 shot rallies, 49% of 5-9 shot rallies, and 61% of 9+ shot rallies. From Nadal’s perspective, what’s the proper countermeasure? He’s not dominating in any metric, and in both long and short points, he’s getting demolished. Medvedev has had a solid edge in both the serve-return battle and the toughest rallies.

2:32:16: Another gut-wrenching moment for Nadal. He hits a spectacular inside-out forehand return to begin Medvedev’s 2-all service game. It affords him a very short forehand, which he rips crosscourt. But Medvedev reads it perfectly and passes him with a clean crosscourt backhand. The story of Nadal’s performance so far is that he hasn’t been consistently good enough, but even when he has come up with the goods, Medvedev has had the answers. Nadal’s back-against-the-wall moment won’t come until the next game, but this moment felt as deflating as anything for the Spaniard.

2:37:20: Nadal’s plight peaks in his 2-3 service game. At love-30, Medvedev returns a Nadal smash that was hit right on top of the net, works the rally perfectly, and scorches a backhand winner down the line. Nadal is now trailing 2-6, 6-7 (5), 2-3, love-40. In a match with many inflection points, this one is the ultimate, so it’s worth doing some point-by-point analysis of what’s to follow.

Break point #1: Nadal gets in a first serve, pushes Medvedev back with a crosscourt forehand, then feathers a drop shot winner over the net. Nothing Medvedev could have done there. Nadal allows himself a fist pump and grits his teeth.

Break point #2: Medvedev gets great depth, forcing Nadal into a short backhand, but the Russian misses an aggressive crosscourt backhand long. It’s a bad miss, but not one I ever would have expected to potentially cost Medvedev the match.

Break point #3: Medvedev tries a drop shot, which isn’t a terrible idea — he was on the baseline; Nadal way behind his — but the execution is way off. Nadal gets to the ball easily and chops a backhand slice crosscourt that Medvedev bunts into the net.

So we can certainly point to things Medvedev could have done better on the second and third break points. But he didn’t exactly throw away either point, and he hadn’t been playing all the previous big points exceptionally well, especially in the second set. Not breaking in this game was not a choke; from love-40 down, Nadal didn’t make an unforced error for the rest of the game. The Spaniard getting out of this game was inarguably a momentum shift, but in the moment, I imagined that it would lead to Nadal winning a set at most. At 3-all in the third, Medvedev still seemed to be well in control of the match.

2:47:12: At 3-all, 30-15, Medvedev horrendously biffs a backhand putaway while mere feet away from the net. It felt big in the moment, but he responds with a beautiful angled backhand winner, then a crosscourt forehand winner to hold.

2:54:35: To me, this match really starts to turn during Medvedev’s 4-all service game. Nadal begins with a stunning backhand pass, but starting at 15-30, Medvedev has a breakdown. From right on top of the net, he only needs to put a drop shot in play for it to be a winner, but he taps the ball into the net, then immediately starts sarcastically applauding the pro-Nadal crowd’s cheers. Medvedev plays the 15-40 point almost lackadaisically (though escapes due to some insane defense). And at 30-40, Medvedev approaches Nadal’s backhand again. The Spaniard has all the time in the world to measure a bullet down the line, which he sends flying past Medvedev. Crowd goes nuts.

Screenshot: Australian Open

3:00:22: Nadal serves out the set with four straight winners: inside-in forehand, crosscourt forehand, backhand down the line, inside-in forehand. It’s an intimidating sequence, and maybe the first time all match Nadal has really buckled down successfully with the crunch on. I still thought the final was Medvedev’s in the moment, but this stretch made me think he would have to recover his godly first-set level to get across the line.

A quick word on the crowd: they were not great. Medvedev’s sarcastic clapping in the 4-all game was warranted. The typical reaction to a botched drop shot as bad as Medvedev’s is a gasp of shock; here, the fans shrieked in elation. Even Nadal had to acknowledge them — before set point at 5-4, 40-love, he held up his hand to silence the crowd before serving. Cheering your favorite player is one thing, doing so at the expense of their opponent feels excessive. There wasn’t much that could have been done to manage the situation, but spare a thought for Medvedev.

Back to the tennis. Though Medvedev’s biggest chance in this set was at 3-2, I’d say his biggest level dip was at 4-all — he made a series of puzzling decisions in the game, from multiple drop shots (one missed, one Nadal ran down easily) to approaching Nadal’s backhand behind a substandard forehand on break point. Medvedev had held his previous six service games; this one got away at least in part by his own hand.

Set 4

3:08:13: A sign of Medvedev fatigue: serving at 0-1, Nadal bosses a rally, setting up a midcourt forehand. Like he did a couple times in the third set, Medvedev reads that Nadal is going crosscourt and camps out in his backhand corner. But here, he’s slower to get to the ball, and can only poke back a defensive shot with one hand on the racket. Nadal duly finishes the point with a winner. On the earlier points, Medvedev had hit clean crosscourt passing shots off virtually the exact same ball.

3:12:58: Medvedev gets to break point for 2-0, but Nadal sizzles a forehand winner down the line (from a very deep position you wouldn’t usually expect a winner from) to save. On his next break point, Medvedev misses a regulation backhand. It’s a nice microcosm of how this match turned around: it wasn’t solely Nadal brilliance or Medvedev failing to take his chances, it was both.

3:15:20: Medvedev’s lack of a reliable finishing weapon is really starting to cost him. At deuce in Nadal’s 0-1 service game, he has a look at a pretty neutral backhand volley. Trying to slice it short into the ad court, Medvedev misjudges the ball so badly that it bounces before even reaching the net. Between this, his often iffy offensive forehand, and his fatiguing legs, the balance is shifting towards Nadal in the rallies.

3:21:28: Medvedev double faults to drop serve at 1-all. He gets his quads massaged on the changeover.

3:24:20: Mark Petchey makes a great point on the broadcast: Medvedev is struggling physically, but the only way to rush Nadal is to hit the ball hard, which requires more energy. I’ve long thought that Nadal is one of the worst opponents to get tired against for this very reason. He’s difficult enough to play in even rallies, but if your rally ball loses even a fraction of juice, he’ll start hitting the ball to whatever corner he wants. Then you become even more gassed as you’re forced to do more running. Rushing him is absolutely key. Not long after Petchey says this, Nadal starts hammering backhand winners down the line with alarming regularity, which is usually a rarity for him.

3:34:22: Having dug out of love-40 at 2-all, Medvedev gets to game point. He has a look at a baseline overhead and shanks it way past the baseline. It’s moments like these that stick out on the rewatch — Medvedev could have put himself three games away from the title, and given that he had been down a break at 1-2 in this set, going up 3-2 would have handed him some serious momentum with the finish line approaching.

3:35:36: Medvedev saves another break point at 2-all, actually managing to dictate a point with his forehand. He finishes with a winner inside-in after dragging Nadal across the baseline a few times. The problem is, you can see how much effort this requires from Medvedev — he doesn’t have Nadal’s f-u power from the forehand, so he has to throw his entire body into every shot. At this point in this match, it’s clear that outside of his serve, he doesn’t have a way to win points economically, which is a big problem if he’s fatiguing.

3:39:25: Nadal finally breaks in the 2-all game on chance #7, pulling Medvedev to net with a drop shot and angling a backhand pass way beyond his reach.

Nadal celebrates. Screenshot: Australian Open

3:41:42: Interestingly, though Nadal has won the third set and is up a break in the fourth, the Infosys win predictor now only gives him a 10% chance of winning. Remember, when the score was 2-6, 6-7, 0-1, Nadal was at 4%, so winning the third set and going up a break in the fourth is apparently only worth six percentage points. (Interesting to think of what the win predictor would have said when Nadal was down 2-3, love-40 in the third set — 1%?)

Alternative theory: the win predictor kind of sucks.

3:44:35: Nadal has a little god mode moment at 3-2. Up 30-15, he half-volleys a deep return into the opposite corner for an inside-out forehand winner. Though Nadal is capable of this type of shot, he doesn’t hit it often — his forehand is at his best when he has time to load up for a haymaker swing; the half-volley winner is a shot associated much more with the recently retired (and much-missed) Roger Federer. But Nadal nails it here, then closes out the game with a low volley that travels at an angle almost parallel to the net. Medvedev doesn’t bother chasing it.

3:49:49: To give you an idea of the ebbs and flows in this match, Nadal begins his next service game by shockingly missing two identical, bread-and-butter crosscourt forehands. He falls behind 15-40, but erases the break points in about the same time it took Elon Musk to lose all his credibility while trying to run Twitter.

At deuce, they play an instructive rally. Nadal is dictating, and though Medvedev has time to set up behind a couple of his shots, the depth on his groundstrokes has vanished a little bit. It’s a recipe for disaster: Nadal yanks him into his forehand corner, then wrong-foots him with an inside-out forehand winner.

3:56:20: With Medvedev serving at 3-5, 30-15, Nadal returns a perfect T serve, then scorches a backhand winner down the line when Medvedev tries to approach the net. At 30-all, Nadal blasts a backhand crosscourt with incredible weight and pace even if it comes nowhere near the lines — it staggers Medvedev a little bit — then murders another winner down the line. When Nadal plays like this, I want to say he can still give Djokovic hell on a hard court, 19-set losing streak to the Serb on the surface be damned. Nadal looks unstoppable when he hits his weaker groundstroke this well.

You can see Medvedev’s resigned body language here as he doesn’t even attempt to chase Nadal’s rocket backhand. Screenshot: Australian Open

4:03:33: Nadal serves the set out at love to send the match to a fifth.

Set 5

4:05:27: Medvedev serves to open the fifth. At 15-all, he volleys to Nadal’s forehand. He gets passed down the line. At 30-all, he approaches to Nadal’s forehand. He gets passed down the line. This is where I started to think Nadal would win when I watched this match live: you don’t approach to Nadal’s forehand, and you definitely don’t screw around by trying it multiple times early in a fifth set. Medvedev had either lost his mind or his legs, and either one could prove fatal.

Medvedev ends up holding with a bunch of good serves, but I remember this game leaving me seriously concerned for his prospects at the time.

4:12:55: Nadal has started to win what seems like every point that goes beyond three or four shots. He wins a long one to hold for 1-all.

4:16:46: Some stats: Medvedev has run 4.64 kilometers in the match so far to Nadal’s 4.28, and has done 56 “sprints” to Nadal’s 30. A possible reason for his physical deficit despite his younger body.

Regardless of any stats that can help explain it, I have to comment on Nadal’s remarkable durability in this match. With the exception of his really shaky period late in the second set when he was hitting groundstrokes halfway up the net, he’s looked just fine physically. His performance in long rallies has actually gotten better as the match has gone on. I hadn’t anticipated Nadal holding up this well before the match given his age deficit and Medvedev’s significantly better physical performance before the final. As far as I know, no one else picked Nadal to outlast the then-25-year-old either. The fact that he did is incredible.

4:21:48: At 2-all, 30-15, Nadal returns a second serve deep, Medvedev’s backhand has no pace whatsoever on it, and Nadal blisters an inside-out forehand winner. Medvedev’s first serve is carrying him on its back; whenever he misses, he’s losing the point. Medvedev is serving phenomenally well so far in the fifth set — this was just the third time he had missed a first serve — but he’s lost all three of those second serve points. The accurate first serving is clearly unsustainable; it feels inevitable that Medvedev will eventually start missing due to the pressure or just lose his rhythm.

4:23:40: Facing break point at 2-all, Medvedev misses his first serve. He rallies pretty well, hitting an inside-out backhand and a decent forehand down the line. The only problem? Nadal slices back the former and chases down the latter, delivering his patented running forehand down the line. It kisses the sideline for a winner, Medvedev nowhere near it. Mark Petchey says that it’s the best shot Nadal has ever hit. (In terms of skill required to make a shot, Nadal has hit ones that are miles better, but in terms of that balanced with importance, this one is certainly up there.)

At the time, Nadal’s shot selection confused me, despite the fact that he had hit a brilliant winner. He had been winning every rally with relative ease, so why take a chance on a coin-flip forehand? It would have been easy enough to neutralize Medvedev’s shot with a forehand crosscourt, then to slowly break down the Russian in the rally from there. That exact technique had been working all through the fifth set. I still don’t know why Nadal went for the forehand he did, but it worked, so he doesn’t need a reason. This is probably one of the many reasons why Nadal has 22 major titles and I’m sitting on my bed writing a “live” diary of a match he played ten and a half months ago.

Nadal makes contact with the fateful forehand. Screenshot: Australian Open

Another thing: this is the first time Nadal has had the lead in the match since 2-1 (on serve) in the first set.

4:34:53: Nadal has a handful of game points at 3-2, but can’t close out the game, and Medvedev gets a look at three break points. Luckily for Nadal — and for no discernible reason — Medvedev’s backhand return, usually his stronger wing, goes haywire. He misses backhand returns on all three break points, and only one of them can clearly count as a forced error. Nadal’s first serves on the other two had been pretty ordinary. A stat shows that Medvedev made 97% of his returns in the fourth set (a set he lost, remember) and is down to a dire 60% in the fifth. It’s a bad time for Medvedev to lose his rhythm on the return; after all the missed game points earlier in the game, Nadal was getting a bit nervy. He holds for 4-2.

This is an interesting game to observe Nadal play, because he’s fighting himself as well as his opponent. He lost the 2012 Australian Open final to Djokovic and the 2017 final to Federer from this exact position: a break up in the fifth set. With Nadal at age 35 and in his first Australian Open final in three years, this match had the potential to be his most heartbreaking final loss in Melbourne yet. Even as he maintained the break lead, it felt like there was a twist coming.

4:44:43: With Nadal serving at 4-3, 15-love, the match clock hits five hours. It’s insane to think how long this match ended up being (at five hours and 24 minutes, it is the second-longest in Nadal’s career behind the 2012 Australian Open final, and it’s the longest in Medvedev’s career). The first set was even a relative rout at 6-2. Imagine if that set had gone to a tiebreak.

4:54:34: Nadal steps to the line to serve for his second Australian Open title and 21st major overall. I don’t think anyone expected this game to be straightforward, but at first, it looked like it might be: Nadal starts with a big serve for 15-love, then whacks a very aggressive forehand to set up an easy volley.

4:56:05: …and then the other shoe drops. Nadal makes a forehand error, then double faults. Medvedev goes on the attack at 30-all with a backhand down the line and a crosscourt forehand and whips away an easy smash. At break point, when Nadal is typically so clutch, he makes a good wide serve, hits an inside-out forehand, then takes on a crosscourt backhand…and swipes it into the net. It is now 5-all in the fifth, Nadal’s lead erased, his chance to serve out the match gone. He bites his lower lip and smiles a little.

Medvedev breaks back. Screenshot: Australian Open

5:01:18: With Medvedev serving at 5-5, 30-15, they play what I consider to be a sneaky candidate for one of the biggest points of the match. Medvedev hits a huge serve down the middle that Nadal claws back short, then tries a drop shot to Nadal’s backhand that the Spaniard repels with his classic no-look backhand flick winner. Had Medvedev won the point, he’d have two game points for 6-5, meaning a likely hold of serve, meaning Nadal would have to win the match in a tiebreak. Not only had Nadal lost the second set tiebreak in this match, he hadn’t won a tiebreak against a top-ten player since the World Tour Finals in 2019. This isn’t to say Nadal couldn’t have broken from 40-15 down, or that he couldn’t have won a super-tiebreak. But the odds would have been stacked against him.

Instead: Nadal gets to 30-all. Medvedev never has a game point at 5-all. Nadal breaks and goes on to serve out the match in the following game.

5:02:51: At deuce in the 5-all game, Medvedev hits a short crosscourt backhand and immediately gets burned by Nadal’s forehand down the line. You can never, ever hit short to Nadal’s forehand and expect to emerge safely. But five hours and 10 minutes into this match, Medvedev’s shot quality suffering a little isn’t totally shocking. Again, Nadal is a bad opponent to tire against.

5:04:20: On the third break point of the game, Medvedev hits a perfect T serve. Had Nadal been leaning the other way, it would have been an ace. As it happens, Nadal — returning from well behind the Melbourne letters — gets back a sliced backhand return with decent depth. And here, Medvedev’s forehand weakness screws him. He doesn’t have the easy power for an effortless winner. He jumps as he makes contact in an effort to generate extra pace, but his inside-out forehand not only isn’t enough to get past Nadal, it lands beyond the baseline.

Check out where the serve lands. Screenshot: Australian Open

5:07:34: Again, Nadal finds himself at 30-love. I remember thinking the following point was massive as I watched this live: 40-love meant certain victory, 30-15 meant a possible repeat of the 5-4 game. Nadal smashes a serve out wide that clips the sideline and flies past Medvedev. It’s ruled his third ace. The let radar beeps, but — shockingly — no one seems to notice. The umpire doesn’t pick up on it, Medvedev doesn’t complain, Nadal doesn’t say anything, and the commentators don’t comment, either. I’d guess that the excruciating tension was responsible for everyone missing this, but the beep was clearly audible. An unfortunate moment for Medvedev.

5:08:39: In a point emblematic of how he’s developed over the years into a more aggressive player, Nadal hits his classic wide serve, then a big inside-out forehand, then races to net to put away a drop volley. Medvedev can’t get there. The crowd explodes, Nadal drops his racket and covers his face in euphoric disbelief. He has won his 21st major.

***

It’s hard to digest a match this long and this packed with plot twists. But I’ll try. First: was there a more emblematic way for Nadal to win his 21st major and second Australian Open? He had the final losses in 2012, 2014, 2017, and 2019. He hadn’t played for the second half of 2021. In the match itself, he faced an enormous deficit, then, not unlike in 2012, he had an opportunity to close out the match and it had gone begging. And despite everything, Nadal managed to recover and drag himself across the line. He had won the tournament in 2009, but had experienced so much pain in Melbourne since that I imagine this felt like the first time he had lifted the trophy there.

Medvedev was very classy after the match, which he deserves all the credit in the world for. He mentioned that the crowd had diminished some of his previous enthusiasm for tennis (“the kid stopped dreaming”) and that from this point on, he was going to be playing for himself rather than any fans. In terms of the match, though, Medvedev seemed remarkably centered, saying largely what I did above: that he was disappointed not to close out the match, but didn’t think he choked. Some of the weaknesses in his game — the attacking forehand, the touch at net and on the drop shot — were rather noticeable. But that was likely expected going into a major final against a difficult opponent. Still, I’d be shocked if a few moments in the final three sets didn’t take up camp in Medvedev’s mind every now and then.

Medvedev’s game has sadly deteriorated since this match. I don’t think he’s played as well as he did in the first set of this final in the past 10 months and change. He got another shot at Nadal in Acapulco and lost 6-3, 6-3, going 0/11 on break points. He got a hernia, then got trounced by Marin Čilić at Roland-Garros (I was at this match, and though peak Čilić lives up to absolutely all the hype, it was jarring that Medvedev was never really in the match). He wasn’t allowed to play Wimbledon. He failed to defend his U.S. Open title, losing comfortably to Nick Kyrgios. His typically awesome serve has randomly malfunctioned a few times, giving up over 10 double faults in a couple matches. Though Medvedev won a couple small titles, there are few other good things to say about his year. His trio of final-set tiebreak losses at the World Tour Finals felt almost gratuitously emblematic of his season.

I can’t see inside Medvedev’s head — maybe he is completely over the Australian Open final and his form can be chalked up to other things — but it’s hard not to trace his struggles back to the key moments in the loss to Nadal. I have no idea what’s to come for him in 2023. But I can say that during the stretch of the final when Medvedev was routing Nadal, I was ready to project enormous things for his career. He was fresh off winning the U.S. Open. He matched up well with Djokovic. He had survived an epic performance from Felix Auger-Aliassime in the Australian Open, winning from two sets and two match points down. He could deal with Tsitsipas and Rublev on a hard court easily. Medvedev still has a lot of things going for him heading into 2023. But that window when it seemed like he could be an all-conquering force on hard court has closed.

I think this match will mostly be remembered for what it did for Nadal, though. It put him above both Federer and Djokovic in major titles for the first time, a position he still holds at the end of the season. It erased his Australian Open demons. Despite what came after in 2022 — including his 14Roland-Garros — this was the crown jewel of his season, and though he’d never say it, I imagine that everything that he won after the Australian Open this year felt almost secondary for Nadal. He was never supposed to win this Australian Open, right up until the moment that he did. Nadal is adamant about living in the present. When he goes to Melbourne in 2023, he’ll be thinking about defending his title (though his odds of doing that aren’t all that much better than his chances of winning the title were this year). But it’s hard to imagine he won’t allow himself a smile at the memory of 2022.

Published by Owen

Owen Lewis 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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