One of the pleasures of watching a great tennis player through the years is that we will see him or her pushed to all kinds of emotional extremes. Every close match has a different atmosphere and a different set of circumstances, which is enough to bring out a shot, a look, or a reaction from a star that you hadn’t quite seen before.
This is especially true of a player as expressive and natural as Rafael Nadal. He has been involved in dozens of classic contests, dozens of knock-down, drag-out fights that have used up every ounce of emotion—his, his opponent’s, and that of anyone watching. He almost always, after seeming to be on the verge of disaster, pulls them out. Think Rome 2006 against Federer, Wimbledon 2008 against Federer, the semifinals of the Olympics against Djokovic—each called on different tactics and reserves from him, but he survived them all.
You can add another one-of-a-kind epic to that list today. Nadal beat his countryman Fernando Verdasco in five hours and five sets in the semifinals of the Australian Open to set up another go-round with Federer. This match didn’t take place in the venerable environs of Centre Court, but the quality and drama were comparable to the Wimbledon final, in a sweaty, hard-working, upbeat Australian kind of way. Maybe it’s the sleeves, but Nadal for once looked smaller than his opponent, a more compact version of himself. Verdasco, being a lefty, resembles him, but he’s a little bigger and hits a little bigger. From a physical standpoint, Nadal seemed to be playing uphill.
He was doing it extremely well. Verdasco hit more winners, many of them awe-inspiring, but Nadal’s shot-making and overall command, especially through the fifth set, were remarkable. Game after game, he just missed breaking Verdasco’s serve, then got right back to business to hold easily. His serve itself was as effective as it’s ever been in putting a stop to an opponent’s momentum.
Beyond that, there was lots, lots more, a feast of improbable shots from both guys, but I'll just detail a few of Nadal's that stick in my mind. There were the violently sidespinning forehand winners into the corners; the gets from 10 feet wide of the sidelines; the spin around twice, block the ball blindly back, then thread a crosscourt pass winner; the reflex overhead spike winner; the charge the net for the first time in an hour when you’re down 15-30 at 4-4 in the fifth idea (it worked); the intelligently unrisky running backhand pass at Verdasco’s feet to set up a winner on the next ball (every textbook recommends that; how many people do it?); the 0-30 down at 4-4 no problem I’m going to gather myself and win the next seven points concept; and finally the please double-fault please double-fault, yes he double-faulted finish yes.
As Nadal kept losing break points through the fifth, I began to put a scenario together: Verdasco is a noted double-faulter. Nadal is serving first, so Verdasco will have to hold with the match on the line. And Nadal is getting tight when he’s reaching break point. It came together pretty much as I imagined it. I’m willing to bet Verdasco wins that last point if he gets his serve in. But it’s not as if Nadal hadn’t worked for his good fortune in the end. Both guys deserved a lucky break, but he was the one who got it. Call it a new survival technique from a guy with about a dozen of them.
So we saw shots we’d never seen from Nadal before. I also spotted a new expression from him late in the match. I remember it coming at 4-3 in the fifth; a friend remembers it at triple match point. Either way, it was a trance-like bug-eyed look filled with exhaustion and maximum adrenalin at once (it's close to the photo above, but not quite). It was the face of a great tennis player on the ledge again. Leave it to Rafael Nadal to show us how far the sport can push a man.
Will he have anything left for the final? While it’s plainly unfair to have one men’s semifinal a full day after the other—TV ratings only excuse so much tinkering with the fairness of the competition—Nadal will have the usual amount of rest between matches. The forces seem to be favoring Federer. He’s playing and moving well, he’s 3-0 in finals in Melbourne, he’s going to want to get No. 14 out of the way now if at all humanly possible, and he has a winning record against Nadal on hard courts (it’s just 3-2, but that’s better than the 6-12 overall between them). Plus, I picked Federer at the beginning of the tournament, which I'm sure has given him confidence in Oz. (“If Steve Tignor thinks I can win…”)
And yet. Federer has rarely been the same player against Nadal that he is against the rest of the world—that air of serene confidence is knocked out of him. Plus, Federer’s fabulous form in the last two rounds came against an overwhelmed Del Potro and his personal whipping boy, Andy Roddick. It’s no coincidence that I heard Pat McEnroe refer to Federer as a “genius” for the first time in a long time in the semis. Part of it was because Federer was playing a guy who, with his mediocre approach shots and volleys, is tailor-made not just to lose to him, but to make him look spectacular in the process. That’s not how it works for Federer against Nadal. And the courts apparently play more slowly at night, which is when this final will be held.
I can see Federer moving forward, pushing Nadal around, and slowly grabbing a hold of the match, maybe after winning a first-set tiebreaker. I can also see Nadal coming out with guns blazing—behind his sleeves—and nothing to lose and dominating the rallies because he wants to make them as short as possible. I can see a dozen other variations on these themes. A lot may depend on Federer’s willingness to come forward even if Nadal blows a couple balls past him or he stones a volley early. That’s something Verdasco had success with, but which he didn’t do relentlessly.
Most of all, I can see a match that tennis needs. It’s not just a continuation of the defining rivalry of this time, but an extension of it to a new surface and a new arena. One thing we know about the Aussie Open is that its bouncy, medium-pace courts often allow two opponents to feel comfortable and maximize their games at the same time. This has been the site of some of the finest matches of the last decade. We deserve one from these two guys.
Anyway: Nadal in four.