“That is the best shot he has ever hit.”
The commentator was emphatic. The crowd was delirious. Rafael Nadal’s pumped his fists.
It was two-all in the fifth set. Nadal had a break point and for the first time in the match – after four hours and 39 minutes of play – he was about to get his nose ahead on the scoreboard.
Daniil Medvedev had worked that point reasonably well. He first landed a backhand in the corner of the deuce court and then a forehand that nearly landed on the sideline on the ad court. But then came the moment that sent everyone watching – the commentator and crowd included – into a frenzy.
At one of the biggest moments in the match, Nadal managed to hit perhaps the cleanest winner on the night. He scampered across and unleashed a blazing forehand that found its way to the sideline on the other side; his opponent left with no choice but to see the ball whiz past him.
It curled, it dipped, it mesmerised. It was a shot of sheer genius… from one of the purest ball-strikers the game has ever seen.
Up until that moment too, the fifth set had been fascinating. Both players were locked in, they knew what was at stake, they knew how close they were to achieving it, and the tension was palpable. One couldn’t predict which way the match was going to go.
What made that period all the more intriguing was the long journey it took to get to an even keel. The first two and a half sets saw Nadal play catch-up. Medvedev was in command and even though he got broken early in the second set, his comeback was hardly surprising. Nadal looked a bit tired, a tad slow to react, his body wasn’t going through the shots, there were unforced errors aplenty, and a defeat seemed imminent.
Then there was the second half of the third and the entirety of fourth. Perhaps it was the fact that Nadal had clearly upped his game, but Medvedev’s level had undoubtedly dropped. The hustle he’s famous for was missing, the win percentage on first serves dipped drastically, and his tactics were all over the place. A reason for all of this could also be his quad muscles tightening up, as the commentators mentioned. He called out for the trainer too.
However, despite all their struggles, Nadal and Medvedev weren’t giving an inch in the early exchanges of the fifth set. They were chasing down balls freely and both held their serves to love to take the score to 2-2. Their revival served a reminder of how perplexing the human body is. Both were struggling physically earlier in the match but the spring in their step had returned. It was as if they had reset to start over… as if you will yourself enough and the body eventually complies.
So how did Nadal complete what will decidedly go down as one of the greatest comebacks in tennis history? Against a player 10 years younger to him, someone who’s been one of the most consistent hard court performers in recent times.
Well, the truth is that he did absolutely everything right when it mattered most.
Nadal is known for his undying spirt, for the fighter he is, and there were dollops of that on display right from the time he was down two sets and a triple break point. He had lost the Australian Open final in 2012, 2014, 2017 and 2019. No matter the fatigue, he wasn’t going to give in.
His tactics were spot on too. His groundstrokes were heavier, he used the short, sharp forehand crosscourt to take Medvedev wide and open up the court, he used the drop shot effectively, and his first serve percentage for the set was up considerably.
Then there is the courage and the ability to produce clutch play. To stick to your plans and back yourself to produce the goods. Like the composed winner he hit from the baseline after missing an overhead at the net, or the full-stretch return he made at 5-5 to break Medvedev’s serve one last time.
And finally, there is the aspect for which he perhaps gets least credit – the outrageous shot making… the kind that compels commentators to make some bold statements on air. It is one thing to have the heart to keep fighting and the courage to go for your shots, but to consistently land your blows under pressure requires a special talent – the sort of talent possessed by the rarest of rare athletes.
As admirers, we tend to bracket greats of the game. While Nadal is the ultimate fighter, Roger Federer and Novak Djokovic – names synonymous with Rafa – are perhaps the most talented and clutch respectively. But as Nadal showed in the Australian Open 2022 final, the fact is that they are who they are because they possess an abundance of every quality it takes to win the biggest moments. It isn’t any one of skill, stamina, heart or temperament alone.
Nadal’s sincerity each time he says the Grand Slam count doesn’t matter to him cannot be doubted. But the fact remains that for many fans, it is a big deal. How can it not be? Nadal has won his 21st major, he is clear of his great rivals in the lead, it’s a momentous occasion, and he deserves every accolade that comes his way.
For the record he set and the manner in which he did it, this match will always be considered while discussing his greatest. It may face competition but even then, just like Nadal each time he has a racket in his hand, it’ll push forward.