The 20-year-old could not believe how he had lost his first Grand Slam semi-final 6-2, 6-4, 6-0 to a certain 17-time champion Rafael Nadal. How had he managed to win only six games in one of the biggest matches of his life?
By the accounts of the journalists who attended his press conference after the match, he was at a loss to explain what had happened. “It felt like a different dimension of tennis completely,” he told reporters after a match.
Tsitsipas is not alone. Many players over the years have been troubled by the same thought. It took Federer almost an entire career to overcome this particular obstacle. But for the young generation, both, the lost one and the one just stepping in this is a three-pronged attack.
In the iconic words of Sydney Daily Telegraph, “Ashes to ashes, dust to dust. If one doesn’t get you, the other must.” If you manage to beat Federer, how to overcome Nadal? And if by some chance you do manage to that – like Juan Martin del Potro did back in 2009 – you still have to face a Novak Djokovic.
With these three tennis behemoths as they are, there is a long way to go before a youngster can break through. This why the “changing of the guard” narrative after Tsitsipas’ win over Federer made little sense. Yes, a youngster upset an established star but this guard is actually three players who have won more Grand Slams than some players have won ATP 250 titles.
Yet another incredulous comeback for Nadal
But Nadal obliterating Tsitsipas to reach his fifth Australian Open final acquires an extra level of extraordinary incredulity.
A year ago, the 32-year-old was forced to retire in the quarter-final with injury. Similarly, he walked out of the semi-final of the US Open, and didn’t play a competitive match till his tournament opener in Melbourne. A couple of months ago, he underwent another surgery, this time on his ankle. A few weeks ago, he pulled out of Brisbane with yet another injury, citing a thigh strain.
But as he has so many times before, Nadal fought against his rebellious body and stood up to return to winning ways. Every time he has been forced to step away from tennis due to his ravaged physicality, he has come back and won.
Reaching the final of the first Grand Slam of the year will be extra special, as his quiet moment of happy tears after the match suggested. The Rod Laver Arena has never been a happy hunting ground for the Spaniard. He has won only one title here – back in 2009 – and has lost three gruelling finals to Novak Djokovic, Stan Wawrinka and Roger Federer.
But this time, ten years after he last won the title, Nadal is looking fresh and hungry. He is yet to drop a set and his new, remodeled, energy-saving serve, has won him 63 straight service games. As in the match on Tuesday, he showed that his weapons are well-oiled and firing, and his body is storing them perfectly as well.
A message to Next Gen
The first point of the match was a serve and volley play that Tsitsipas won. But it was all downhill from there for him. He was broken twice in the first set while Nadal kept winning free points on his serve, backing his break with a love hold.
In a big match, an inexperienced player is always on the back foot against Nadal but this was one-way traffic. The second set saw the most fight Tsitsipas could muster as he saved four break points. But unlike against Federer (where he saved 12), he could neither serve himself out of trouble nor did his opponent let go of any chance that came his way.
The third set was demolition, a bagel that looked more warm-up match for Nadal than a semi-final and ensured that he entered his fifth final fresh for another slugfest.
The moment of the match was an outrageous running forehand winner from Nadal on what Tsitsipas and everyone else thought was a service winner. It was the perfect embodiment of the second seed through his six matches so far – you throw the kitchen sink at him and he will still make it a feast.
The Spaniard has beaten three Next Gen stars in the tournament so far – NextGen champion Tsitsipas, runner-up Alex de Mianur and giant-killer Frances Tiafoe. Neither could even manage a toe-hold against him. When asked if he has a message for them, he simply said: “They don’t need any message. They are good. They are improving every month. It’s always a big challenge to play against them. But that’s the beautiful thing about this sport we are able to share generations. They are here already.”
But the world No 2 has essentially given all of them a tennis lesson and a message to the whole wide world – he may have come to Melbourne under an injury cloud but his indomitable skill was still there, if not magnified.