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Turning towards 21: Rafael Nadal defies surging Denis Shapovalov, returns to Australian Open semifinal
Nadal used his trademark tenacity to survive an onslaught from the young Canadian after more than four hours on Rod Laver Arena.
Published Jan 25, 2022
WATCH: A relieved Nadal spoke with Jim Courier after playing Shapovalov for over four hours on RLA.
A match initially made up of footnotes morphed into a classic early Tuesday night when Rafael Nadal faced down fellow lefty Denis Shapovalov for a spot in the Australian Open semifinals.
This clash featured a little of everything: arguments with umpires, a summit at the net between the fiery Shapovalov and an appropriately befuddled Nadal, and even a sudden injury scare. Nadal overcame it all to outlast the No. 14-seeded Canadian, 6-3, 6-4, 4-6, 3-6, 6-3.
Hopes of seeing someone—anyone!—capture their 21st major title kicked into high gear when the Spaniard arrived in Melbourne’s stage to play a formidable understudy to GOAT-presumptive Novak Djokovic. The Spaniard’s 2022 season began as a restart following a disappointing 2021 and the surrender of his Roland Garros title.
Nadal reached Melbourne’s second week having already won a warm-up event on these courts and looking more confident with each victory. Awaiting him in the last eight was Shapovalov, once a name for the future and now one very much relevant at present after he grounded pre-tournament favorite Alexander Zverev in the round of 16.
Though Shapovalov burst into the Wimbledon semifinals last summer behind a barrage of attacking tennis, the 22-year-old can still struggle to contain his awesome power—and his less awesome temper—as was the case through the match’s first two sets.
As his frustration built, Shapovalov turned his attention to his opponent’s notoriously slow pace, beseeching umpire Carlos Bernardes to issue a time violation. Bernardes held his ground and reignited the argument later on, leading Shapovalov and Nadal to hash things out at the net.
What looked to be the biggest takeaway from the match soon became a distant memory as Shapovalov settled and capitalized on a more passive No. 6 seed to take the third set with a late break.
As his forehand began to lose its all-important stick, Nadal began to struggle physically, calling the trainer five games into the fourth set to address a stomach issue that began hindering his movement.
Shapovalov displayed impressive focus to withstand the stop to his own momentum, saving break points when it came time to serve out the set and force a fifth thanks to some big shots.
Injured and overloaded from more matches than he’d played in over six months, the 35-year-old Nadal would have been forgiven for a fade, but such is not what one has come to expect from the game’s most tenacious athlete. The Spaniard took a 3-0 lead nearly out of nowhere, forcing errors from Shapovalov’s backhand when he threatened to break back, and shrugged off an uncharacteristic 11 double faults to nonetheless put on a vintage serving performance late in the four-hour-and-eight-minute marathon. Against all odds, he held off the future for just a bit longer.
A teenaged or even 20-something Nadal would have slid to the ground as Shapovalov’s last shot flew wide; older and wiser, he allowed the smallest of celebrations—perhaps knowing the biggest prize is yet to come.
It was a match nearly defined by the footnotes: first Shapovalov, undone by histrionics, then Nadal, halted by acute injury. Instead, both men rose to the occasion, conjuring sinister spin to enrapture the Rod Laver Arena crowd for five unforgettable sets. Together, they combined for just under 100 winners.
Should Nadal end the week with a second Australian Open title—and that elusive 21 total—this match won’t be a footnote, but a turning point in his journey towards that pinnacle.