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Rafael Nadal turned his Australian Open history from tragedy to triumph over five hours, for a 21st Grand Slam title
And he showed us again that the story of Rafa and the Big 3 isn’t that they come up short sometimes; it’s that they keep coming back for more.
Published Jan 30, 2022
Tennis Channel Live: Final thoughts on the Australian Open
For nearly five hours, as I watched the Australian Open men’s final on Sunday morning, I prepared myself to write a post about how, when the story of the Big Three is told, it will have to include a chapter on how each of them came up painfully short in a quest to win a 21st Grand Slam title. The chapter would start with Roger Federer losing the 2019 Wimbledon final after having two match points; move on to Novak Djokovic falling one match shy of the Grand Slam at the 2021 US Open; and, to round out this tale of Olympian heartbreak, conclude with Rafael Nadal losing his fifth straight Australian Open final, to Daniil Medvedev, in 2022. The theme, roughly, would be that even the Gods can’t win them all, and that this is OK, because it’s good to know these guys are human, or part-human, after all.
That’s what I believed in the first set on Sunday, when Nadal, who was already in a full sweat after three games, appeared to have no idea how to play Medvedev, no idea where to try to put the ball against a 6’6” albatross who was everywhere at once. “Nadal is going to have to go so hard just to stay in it,” ESPN’s Patrick McEnroe said. When he lost the first set 6-2, it was tough to disagree.
Nadal did go hard in the second set, but when it was over, his prospects looked even bleaker. He had used his slice to neutralize Medvedev, and his drop shot to disrupt his rhythm. He had figured out how to open up space on the court and maneuver Medvedev out of position. He had gone up a break twice, reached set point, and served for the set. He had taken the Rod Laver Arena crowd, which was fully behind him, on an emotional roller-coaster ride.
By the time the set reached a tiebreaker, ESPN’s other McEnroe, John, understood the stakes: “He’s expended so much energy, it’s even more important that he wins this,” McEnroe said of Nadal. But Rafa didn’t win it. He led 5-3 in the tiebreaker, then lost four straight points.
Five games into the third set, the best you could say for Rafa was that at least it wasn’t going to be close, at least he wasn’t going to lose it from a break up in the fifth set, the way he had against Djokovic in 2012 and Federer in 2017. He was a step slow now, deflated by the result of the second set, and struggling to put his body weight into his shots. Serving at 2-3, Rafa hit two late, tired forehands, and went down 0-40. The crowd could only muster a sad murmur as it waited for the inevitable defeat. “This is all but over,” Patrick McEnroe said, and again it was tough to disagree.
Then Rafa, for the first time in a long time in an Australian Open final, caught a break. Medvedev tightened up. At 15-40, he had a look at a high backhand that he typically crushes for a crosscourt winner. This time, he pulled up just enough to send the ball over the baseline. On the next point, his last break point, Medvedev made a mental error by trying a drop shot that Nadal tracked down. Rafa had a lifeline, and he clung to it. He held; three games later, he broke with a backhand pass; serving for the set at 5-4, he hit four straight winners. How did Rafa turn that seemingly lost set around? Even he couldn’t tell you.
“In that moment, of course, situation have been critical,” he said. “But sport is unpredictable, no? If you fight till the end, normal thing is lose the match in straight sets after that situation.”
“I don’t know. I was repeating to myself during the whole match, I lost a lot of times here having chances, sometimes I was a little bit unlucky. I just wanted to keep believing till the end, no? I just wanted to give me a chance.”
Nadal gave himself that chance, but anyone who has watched him over the years in Aussie Open finals knew it was going to be tough for him to block out the past and turn a miraculous comeback into a miraculous win. Those two five-set defeats weighed heavily on him. Too heavily, it seemed. Serving at 5-4, 30-0, he pulled up on a forehand and sent it long, double faulted, and drilled an easy backhand into the net to give the break back.
Was Rafa just destined, every five years, to lose in maximally devastating fashion in an Australian Open final? He seemed to think so, as he told Eurosport, in comical fashion, later.
“I said, ‘F*ck, one more time, break up in the fifth, I gonna lose the advantage again like in 2012 and 2017,’” Rafa said. Then he told himself, “I can lose the match, or he can beat me, but I can’t give up, even if I am destroyed mentally.”
I think there were two things in Rafa’s game that saved him this time, one old and one relatively new.
The first was his well-known ability to break back, to leave a bad service game behind and dig back in right away. After giving away his serve at 5-4, Nadal won the opening point at 5-5 with a forehand pass. He followed that with a flick backhand pass, and kept enough balls in play to make Medvedev eventually miss a forehand at break point.
The second thing that helped him was his serve. It wasn’t always a match-ending weapon for him, but he has made it better, and it paid off today. At 6-5, Rafa hit a service winner to go up 30-0, and an ace—the best cure for nerves—to reach triple championship point. He closed it with another first serve, that led him to the net, and to Grand Slam No. 21.
“Was the day to give everything, no?” Rafa said. “I enjoyed. I enjoyed the fight. I enjoyed the emotions. At the end have this trophy with me means everything today, no?”
He was asked what had carried him through this Australian Open, and what made him keep believing he could win there, 13 years after his first and only title.
“Love for the game, passion, positive attitude, and working spirit,” he said. “That’s all, no? And the right people next to me helping every single day. I think that’s all.”
All the way until five-all in the fifth, I was ready to write about Rafa, and the Big 3, coming up short now and again. But five hours after the match started, Rafa rewrote that chapter. In 2017, at age 35, Federer came back from a six-month layoff and won the Australian Open. In 2018, Djokovic ended a two-year drought when he won Wimbledon. Now Nadal has added his own, unlikely, late-career comeback triumph in Melbourne.
The story of Rafa, and the Big Three, isn’t that they come up short; it’s that they keep coming back for more.