Two long, dramatic weeks ago, just before the Australian Open was due to begin, Rafael Nadal sat down to set the scene for the fortnight ahead. The shadow of Novak Djokovic’s deportation saga looming large over the tournament, Nadal forcefully answered questions on about his rival. He discussed his recent injuries and his health. He stressed the necessity of taking his return step by step.
At no point was he asked about, or did he mention, the prospect of winning his 21st grand slam title. It was always clear that by virtue of entering the draw, this is what he was competing for, but at a time when he did not know how his body and game would handle his first-round match against Marcos Giron, the world No 66, it was a completely irrelevant subject. “I only played three matches in the last six months. It’s obvious that [nothing is] clear, right?
Over the past two weeks, despite abysmal preparation due to a six-month injury layoff and then being bedridden with Covid, Nadal’s body has survived. At times his game has even thrived as a 21st grand slam win has slowly come back on to his radar. Still, there have been reminders of the limitations he is playing through during this tournament.
Nothing illustrated that more than when, in his quarter-final against Denis Shapovalov, Nadal wilted under the conditions after taking a two-set lead. Shapovalov not only handled the dry heat far better than Nadal – an unimaginable state of affairs in normal times – but he had chances to beat Nadal from two sets down. Nadal survived through his experience and sheer force of will.
On Friday night, he admitted that he “got a little bit tired” after two routine sets against Mattteo Berrettini, yet he carried on to seal his place in the final.
Despite how he is still often viewed, Nadal has not been the dominant physical player on the tour for years. With age and injuries his physicality has declined and he has adapted with increasing efficiency, from taking control of points to attacking even more with his backhand. He has done an excellent job of managing himself in Australia.
Three years ago, when he faced Berrettini in the semi-final of the US Open, Nadal spent most of the match positioning himself by the ballkids to return Berrettini’s immense serve while only moving forward at certain points in the match. On Friday, I have opted for the opposite, striking the ball on first and second serves just behind the baseline.
Standing before Nadal on Sunday will be the player most adept at exposing any physical deficiencies his opponents possess. Daniil Medvedev is clearly the toughest player in the draw. The word “classic” is used often in best-of-five-set matches but their 2019 US Open final was a masterpiece.
Nadal adapted to the physicality of his opponent by constantly taking to the net and, in the end, Medvedev followed him. The pair combined for 140 net points in the match, serving and volleying 49 times between them. This match-up can go in many directions as both players look for solutions. Nadal’s uncertain, stunted months of preparation starkly contrast with the recent events in Medvedev’s career.
Medvedev won the last major he played, denying Djokovic a 21st grand slam title, and he has consolidated his maiden slam better than any man in history: he is aiming to become the only male in the Open era to achieve his first two major tournaments wins back to back “If I’m not able to play at my top level, there will be simply no chance,” said Nadal.
There are many reasons to believe that Nadal can leave Melbourne with his 21st grand slam title. He has built a career out of putting himself in the right position. Before the tournament, as Nadal explained his ambitions, he set the bar at giving himself a chance to play for the biggest titles again. “I just want to try again,” he said. “I want to give my best. I want to give myself a chance to keep enjoying this beautiful sport, to keep fighting for the things that I have been fighting for the last 16 years.”
An extremely difficult challenge awaits him in the final against Medvedev, but he has put himself in the position and he will now take his shot.
George is Digismak’s reported cum editor with 13 years of experience in Journalism