It started when he missed the shot he never misses.
Rafael Nadal had a two-set lead over Stefanos Tsitsipas, and a 1-0 lead in the third-set tiebreaker. Up to that moment, he had controlled play with his serve, made targeted strikes with his backhand return to break, and stayed a step ahead of his younger opponent from the baseline. Tsitsipas, who had a walkover in his previous round and hadn’t played in four days, came out flat and then started to press, and miss. When he batted an ugly backhand wide to lose the first point of the tiebreaker, it looked as if the Big 3 generation would survive yet another major-event challenge from their younger tour-mates.
Nadal began the next point confidently, moving Tsitsipas onto the defensive and forcing him to throw up a high lob that came down short—easy fodder on most days for Rafa, who has one of the game’s best overheads. But this time he caught it late and shanked it long. Maybe it was the height of the lob, maybe it was the lights around the stadium, or maybe it was the finish line that he glimpsed as he looked up, and which made him blink.
Whatever it was, Nadal had lost his mini-break. More important, with the semifinals in sight, he had lost control of the nerves. Two points later, he put an easy forehand into the net. Three points after that, he sent another overhead long, and he followed that with a backhand that flew straight into the air and out. Tsitsipas had been granted new life, and he would make the most of it.
Those misses changed the course of the match, and their memory stayed lodged in Nadal’s head.
“That tiebreak I made a couple of mistakes that I can’t make to win the match or the rest of the things,” he said. “He played well then later. Well done.”
A door had been opened for Tsitsipas, and, as he said, he “flew like a little bird” right through it. He said felt like he had entered tennis “nirvana.”
Tsitsipas flowed through his backhand like he never had before. He cracked forehands on the run, with pace and accuracy, like he never had before. He used his wide serve into the ad court as effectively as he ever had before. And he was physically stronger than Nadal down the stretch, like few other players ever have been before.
Rafa’s serve nearly got him to a final-set tiebreaker, but by the fifth set he was struggling to set up for his backhand or bend his knees for volleys. In the final game, with Tsitsipas serving for the match at 6-5 in the fifth, Nadal found a last burst of energy to reach break point, but Tsitsipas erased it with a service winner and, four hours and five minutes after the match began, hit a backhand screamer up the line to close out a 3-6, 2-6, 7-6 (4), 6-4, 7-5 win that may have been the biggest of his career.
Tsitsipas said that he had worked on being “more consistent with my mood,” and that “maybe the absence of the crowd” helped him stay calm. He also said that it wasn’t just Nadal’s misses that turned the tide.
“I think at the very third set I changed a few things,” he said. “I changed my patterns. I maybe took a little bit more time. I think that helped. I wanted to stay in the court a bit longer.”
“Then it just took off by itself,” he said. “I just played more flawless.”
This match was reminiscent of Nadal’s five-set win over Daniil Medvedev in the 2019 US Open final. In both cases, Rafa went up two sets to love on a talented younger opponent, before making a few anxious errors at the end of the third that gave the other guy a new lease on life. Nadal survived, just barely, against Medvedev in New York, and the Big 3 reigned supreme for another day. This time he wasn’t so lucky.
By the end, Tsitsipas-Nadal looked like what we traditionally think a battle of the generations should look like, with the 22-year-old gradually wearing down the 34-year-old. It’s a logical way for a four-hour match to end, but not one we’ve seen very often in the clashes between Big 3 and Next Gen. The question for the future is whether this was a one-off or a sign of things to come.
Rafa, naturally, seems to think it was a one-off caused by the back injury he suffered before the tournament began.
“I think my physical hold quite well,” Nadal said. “Is true that I probably need a little bit more time because is true that I was in great shape and for 20 days I was not able to practice the way that I expected, not able to play one single match in ATP Cup.”
On the one hand, this was probably the first time I’ve thought, “Well, I guess Nadal isn’t going to play forever.” On the other hand, no one should start to count Rafa out, even at 34, based on one result.
What matters right now is Tsitsipas’ performance. He has stumbled at the finish line on a few big occasions, and it looked as if he might stumble again at 6-5 in the fifth. Instead he got back up and won.
“I was very serene during the match, regardless if it was the first set or the fifth one,” Tsitsipas said. “I think honestly I wasn't expecting too much, and I wasn't expecting too less. It's a sign of maturity and sign of strength, I think.”
With a little help from Nadal, Tsitsipas found his tennis nirvana. Let’s see how long he can stay there.