This Australian Open belonged to Roger Federer and Serena Williams, both of whom won the tournament and further cemented their statuses as the greatest players of all time.
But Rafael Nadal, who lost a five-set heartbreaker to Federer in the final, came away a winner, too. No, he didn’t take home a championship trophy to show for it. What he did earn, however, was a seat back at the Grand Slam contender table.
Nadal, who had last reached a Grand Slam final in 2014—when he won the French Open—proved that he can still beat the best in the world on a consistent basis and get stronger as a fortnight continues.
After an injury-plagued 2016 in which the Spaniard lost 14 matches, had to pull out of two majors and saw his ranking nearly fall out of the Top 10, many began to wonder—understandably so—if we were witnessing the beginning of the end of the 14-time Grand Slam champion.
Was his physical style of play finally catching up to him? Was it just a matter of time before his body, having endured so many grueling marathons over the years, finally broke down? At 30 years old, was he officially past his prime and on borrowed time? Could he stay on the court, at a high level, for a substantial period of time?
Simply put, did he still have what it takes to win a major, to return to the Top 5 and stay there?
We can’t predict how Rafa’s body will hold up, but as for the questions about his ability, he answered those—and then some.
Nadal turned back the clock in Melbourne, at times looking just as he did when he was 25 and winning Grand Slams routinely. He hit his topspin forehand with authority, moved swiftly all over the court with striking quickness and, perhaps most importantly, displayed the mental capacity necessary to claw his way back, adjust and wear his opponent down.
Nadal’s draw was hardly a cakewalk. He needed to get past Alexander Zverev, Gael Monfils, Milos Raonic and Grigor Dimitrov to book a spot in the final. He won two five-set matches—coming up just short in a third—came back from two-sets-to-one down against Zverev and forced a deciding fifth against Federer after losing the third 6-1. After dropping the third set to Monfils, he picked his game up a notch and slammed the door shut instead of letting the Frenchman hang around. He avoided a letdown to Dimitrov, too, when the Bulgarian took the fourth-set tiebreaker and appeared to be riding a wave of momentum.
Rafa had some moments of brilliance last year, specifically during the clay-court season, but it didn’t quite look, or feel, like this. You could feel his confidence Down Under, his belief in himself that he’d survive and advance. And against younger, fresher competition, he clearly had the stamina to go the distance.
During the trophy ceremony, and in his post-match news conference, you could feel Nadal’s great disappointment, even though he tried to shield it with his usual classy demeanor and optimistic, complimentary words.
Before this tournament, many wondered—and doubted, as this writer did—if Rafa would ever win another major, or even make it to a final.
Two weeks later, the expectations that we’re so used to having are back. Not only can Nadal win another Grand Slam, but he should win another Grand Slam. It’s easy to forget because of his injury history and early success, but The King of Clay is still just 30 years old. He has plenty of tennis left in him, and if the Australian Open was any indicator of what lies ahead, plenty of titles left in him.
He’s still hungry, still focused and still as dangerous as anyone in the world.
Rafa wasn’t a popular pick to win the Australian Open, but would you dare bet against him at Roland Garros? Didn’t think so.