INTERVIEW: Rafael Nadal, after reaching the Australian Open semifinals

Advertising

“I was destroyed, honestly, physically,” Rafael Nadal said after his 6-3, 6-4, 4-6, 3-6, 6-3 quarterfinal win over Denis Shapovalov on Tuesday.

So how did he emerge the victor?

It took, according to Rafa, “a little bit of miracle.”

Nadal is due a miracle or two at the Australian Open. Since winning his only title there in 2009, this has been the Nightmare Slam, or the Unlucky Slam, for him—anything but the Happy Slam. It’s the one where he has lost four finals, two of them when he was up a break in the fifth set (first against fellow 20-time Grand Slam champion Novak Djokovic; then against fellow 20-time Grand Slam champion Roger Federer); another when he threw out his back out in the warm-up. It’s where he has been forced to retire with injury, during the second week, three different times. And it’s where, last year, he gave away a two-set lead over Stefanos Tsitsipas because, for the first time in memory, he got tired.

For whatever reason, Rafa has experienced tremendous struggle in Melbourne. But he escaped today.

For whatever reason, Rafa has experienced tremendous struggle in Melbourne. But he escaped today.

It looked like that last little bit of history was about to repeat itself on Tuesday. Nadal won the first two sets comfortably against a nervous Shapovalov, but then the Melbourne heat began to take its toll on the 35-year-old, who hasn’t played a lot of matches, let alone best-of-five-set matches, over the last seven months.

“I started to feel bad honestly at the end of the second [set],” Nadal said. “It was very warm out there today, yeah, and the conditions were hard….We can’t forget that I didn’t play much tennis for such a long time, no?”

By the time the fifth set rolled around, and Shapovalov reached 30-30 on Rafa’s serve in the first game, Nadal looked like he was going to exit the same way he did last year. He was serving and volleying, just to end points quickly. He wasn’t moving well enough to backpedal and hit forehands. He’d taken a medical timeout, a bathroom break, some pills from the doctor and, to the annoyance of his opponent, every second he possibly could between points and games.

“Of course in the beginning of the fifth set, I was very worried, yes,” Nadal said. “I thought [it was] going to be super difficult to win that match.”

Advertising

What happened next wasn’t exactly a miracle. First, Nadal decided that he had to narrow his focus down to one shot, the one he could hit without having to run: his serve. He tried to win points with it outright as often as possible. He swung it wide, he went into Shapovalov’s body, he hit harder second serves than normal, he changed speeds. And it worked. Shapovalov won just 24 percent of his return points, and in the fifth set nearly 70 percent of Nadal’s serves went unreturned. He also saved the two break points he faced in that set with service winners.

“My serve worked well, and for me, every game that I was winning with my serve was a victory, no?” Nadal said. “That was my goal, just try to win games with my serve and expect for the chance on the return.”

The second thing that happened was that Shapovalov played a very bad service game to start the fifth set. This wasn’t surprising; Shapovalov is prone to throw in bad games, and go through bad patches, in virtually every match he plays. Unfortunately for him, this one came when Rafa, who was leaning on his racquet between points, had reached a low point. Instead of taking advantage, Shapovalov missed an easy forehand wide, double faulted, and shanked a backhand into the sky at break point. That was all Nadal would need.

“Definitely felt like I had it on my racquet,” Shapovalov said. “Towards the third, fourth, fifth set, I felt like I was the better player, had more chances. Just one bad game for me.”

Shapovalov felt Nadal was allowed too much time to recover between points, which he let the Spaniard and the umpire know.

Shapovalov felt Nadal was allowed too much time to recover between points, which he let the Spaniard and the umpire know.

Advertising

The quarterfinals have traditionally been Nadal’s Waterloo in Australia. He has lost in that round seven times, including the last two years. It’s the round where he had to quit because of knee pain against Andy Murray in 2010, where he pulled his hamstring against David Ferrer in 2011, where he injured his right leg against Marin Cilic in 2018, where he ran out of gas against Tsitsipas in 2021. This year Nadal managed his physical problems well enough to survive.

“Here I am,” Nadal said. “Being in semifinals means a lot to me against have a victory against a great player after all the things that I went through, so it's an amazing news, no? I’m super happy.”

Nadal is 5-1 in semifinals in Melbourne, but the struggle for his 21st major title has just begun. He’ll have a tougher opponent in Matteo Berrettini in his next match, one who likely won’t give him the break that Shapovalov gave him today. Which is only fair: At 35, playing best-of-five against guys 10 years younger, trying to win your second Australian Open title 13 years after your first, Nadal knows his miracles will have to be earned.