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When you strike at a king: Daniil Medvedev couldn't put away Rafael Nadal in an Australian Open final that rewrote tennis history
The Spaniard has now won every Grand Slam tournament at least twice, and has a record 21 major titles in total.
Published Jan 30, 2022
He was 35 years old. The last half of the previous season had been a bust. He’d wondered during that exile if he’d ever again play tennis. Commencing his year in Melbourne, he’d been seeded lower than usual, but he was also aware that meant nothing when in your heart, you knew you were a champion—and were also willing to innovate through match after match. Now he was inside Rod Laver Arena, on the hunt for a redemptive win, but also, at key stages, on the wrong side of the score versus a younger, formidable rival.
Sound familiar? It should. That was Roger Federer, five years ago in the Australian Open final, in the end rallying from 1-3 down in the fifth set to beat Rafael Nadal and earn his 18th Grand Slam singles title.
Half a decade later, the same data points applied to Nadal. Early Sunday morning, for the first time in nearly 15 years, Nadal recovered from a two sets to love deficit to win a match. But that victory had taken place in an early round, off the main stage (Wimbledon’s No. 2 Court) versus an opponent ranked much lower. This one happened in a major final versus the US Open champion, on center court. Five hours and 24 minutes after the match began, Nadal checked all of those boxes, along with many others, to defeat Daniil Medvedev, 2-6, 6-7 (5), 6-4, 6-4, 7-5.
With his 21st Grand Slam victory, Nadal joins Novak Djokovic, Rod Laver and Roy Emerson as the only men to have earned each singles major twice.
To think that at the start of January, Nadal was recovering from COVID-19, and Djokovic was a heavy favorite to win the tournament, earn a record 21st major and continue his role as this decade’s premier maker of history. But as the novelist Kurt Vonnegut once said, “History is merely a list of surprises. It can only prepare us to be surprised again.”
Twenty minutes shy of 3:00 a.m. local time, Nadal entered the press room in Melbourne to discuss his greatest comeback and what he called his “most unexpected” achievement. Reflecting on his recent rehabilitation efforts from back and foot injuries, Nadal said, “We were trying things. And for a long period of time without any success, with zero success. After all the things that I went through all my career, of course at my age the doubts are there. Knowing that you have an injury that you can't recover from that, of course the doubts are there. Mentally is much tougher.”
Heading into this final, the rational analysis gave a slight edge to Medvedev. From the backhand to the serve, from age to performance, the Russian appeared to have the right set of weapons to earn his second major—at least in the intellectual, tangible realm.
The intangible was where Nadal needed to live—will over skill, heart over head, experience over confidence. But once Nadal failed to close out the second set, even after holding a set point on his serve, he knew reaching that place would require a long search, a battle waged both within himself and versus an in-form Medvedev.
The pivotal moment came when Nadal served in the third set at 2-3, love-40. For all the physicality and intensity that propels Nadal, there is also a keen student at work, a competitor sharply attuned to what’s happening inside the lines. Even at this stage, with his fingers on the ledge, Nadal recognized Medvedev’s lack of skill in the front part of the court.
At 0-40, Nadal feathered a drop shot. At 15-40, Medvedev neglected to take advantage of a short ball and ended up losing the point. At 30-40, Nadal dashed in to cover a Medvedev drop shot, Medvedev responding poorly with a swing volley into the net.
Escaping from that deficit to hold, Nadal was not only back on serve, but he’d also gained mightily from a key flaw in Medvedev’s game. Seeing Medvedev’s limited aptitude moving forward, it was easier for Nadal to defend and eventually seize control of the court’s real estate.
Meanwhile, Medvedev felt the need to go for even more with his groundstrokes. It made for many a thrilling exchange, but the balance had subtly tipped in favor of Nadal’s more versatile, all-encompassing arsenal of sharply spun forehands, shrewd drop shots—and, unlike Medvedev, more than occasional dash to the net On the final point, how revealing indeed it was to see the king of clay at the net playing a point straight out of Rod Laver’s playbook: into the net for a crisp backhand volley.
One can easily understand how upset Medvedev is right now. He was nine points away from winning a second major. What will he learn from this defeat? Justifiably, after the match, Medvedev occupied the realm of emotion, anguished at the lack of public support he received during the match and how it has left him jaded.
“Before Rafa serves even in the fifth set, there would be somebody, and I would even be surprised, like one guy screaming, C'mon, Daniil. A thousand people would be like, Tsss, tsss, tsss. That sound. Before my serve, I didn't hear it,” he said. “It's disappointing. It's disrespectful, it's disappointing. I'm not sure after 30 years I'm going to want to play tennis.
“Again, the kid that was dreaming is not anymore in me after today. It will be tougher to continue tennis when it's like this.”
Hopefully, days removed from such a painful loss, Medvedev will conduct a rational study of the need to improve his volley game, as Nadal did many years ago. Along with that, will Medvedev assess his composure? It was jarring in the semis to see Medvedev be downright rude when trying to get the chair umpire to listen to him. If neglected, Medvedev’s fragile qualities will hinder his progress forward. It would be a shame to see that happen to such an engaging competitor.
Nadal has spoken frequently about his desire to each day become a better tennis player. That’s a rather staggering declaration from a man who’s accomplished so much. Education is the seminal concept behind the success of the Big Three, ranging from the way Federer’s improved backhand and aggressive mindset helped him beat Nadal five years ago in Melbourne, to Djokovic’s upgraded forehand and serve.
Like Nadal, the great Australian Roy Emerson was both a devoted student of the game and a first-rate sportsman. Arguably, the latter greatly helps one address the former, providing an opportunity to rationally view and improve one’s weaknesses.
Then there’s Ralph Waldo Emerson, the 19th-century philosopher who once uttered these words: “When you strike at a king, you must kill him.”
To beat Nadal remains one of the greatest challenges in all of sports. For the first time in 13 years, Nadal has won the year’s first major. On heads the ruler to his kingdom of clay.