Skip to main content

Rafael Nadal Turning the Great Debate On Its Head at Australian Open

If you would have told Rafael Nadal a few months ago that he'd be playing for his 21st Slam title in Melbourne, he likely wouldn't have believed it. Now, history awaits.
Rafael Nadal will be playing for a record 21st Grand Slam men's singles final Sunday in Melbourne.

Rafael Nadal will be playing for a record 21st Grand Slam men's singles final Sunday in Melbourne.

There’s a bay in Manacor, Mallorca, where Rafael Nadal has a plot of land. It's across a passageway from his uncle's home and where he's constructing his family home.

And a few months ago, he gave serious thought to the idea that he might become a full-time resident. He had a stubborn foot injury that not only was slow to heal, but was also causing him more pain and discomfort than any other injury he had in his career, which is saying something. Even when he got on the plane to come to Australia four weeks ago, even through a bout of COVID-19 earlier in December, it was unclear whether he'd be able to play in this tournament and how well he would do. He's been in Melbourne for a full month, which is longer than he has spent preparing for any event, and has had a flawless time so far that may end up, in some ways, rewriting his entire career.

As Nadal prepares to face off against Daniil Medvedev in Sunday’s Australian Open men’s final, Chris Almeida and I break down what’s at stake, and Rafa looks to pull away from Roger Federer and Novak Djokovic with a record 21st Grand Slam singles title. — Jon Wertheim

CA: So, let’s start with a bit of the past: Even people who follow tennis are often surprised when you tell them that Nadal has won this tournament only once. But he’s been to the final and lost now, not including this year, four times. So him reaching the final isn’t really a new thing. And if we look at his path this year, nothing has been a problem for him with the exception of his quarterfinal match against Denis Shapovalov, which went five sets. Why do you think that is? You think it's the hard-court surface? That the field just isn't that deep?

JW: Yeah, his one win in Melbourne is a little misleading. In 2012, he played Djokovic in a five-set, almost-six-hour marathon final that could have gone either way. In '17, he was up a break in the fifth set against Federer. He could easily have won four titles here. So it's not as though the tournament has necessarily been this real bane of his existence. And the truth is, Nadal has a lot going for him on this surface, especially when it's hot and the ball pops up. So that’s the huge advantage and why he has chosen to play during the day.

He's really hard to beat in best-of-five sets, as we saw against Shapovalov—even when he had heatstroke, he still figured out a way to come back. But longer matches give him more margin. You can get hot for an hour and you're still not going to beat him. And, you know, it'd be naive not to think he benefited from not having Djokovic in the draw—Nadal hasn’t beaten him in years on a hard court. But this has also meant Nadal has been able to call the shots about when he can schedule matches.

In a lot of ways, it has broken very well for him, and for someone who six weeks ago didn't know whether he could play, he's not just these three sets away from winning his 21st major, but he also just seems like he’s in a really, really good place.

CA: In the final, he faces Medvedev, who just came off winning his first major at the 2021 US Open. Of all the younger players, he’s the most imposing; the guy who seems least likely to crack under the pressure. The last time these two played a match of this gravity was at the '19 U.S. Open final. It was a banger. It's hard to know how we should evaluate the matchup. It's not exactly: The last time they played, it was so close and now Nadal is two years older and Medvedev is two years more experienced. Clearly, that's not exactly what's going on.

Scroll to Continue

SI Recommends

JW: They’ve played four times and Nadal’s won three of them. There's not much predictive value in that. You're right, the Medvedev that Nadal beat at the 2019 U.S. Open was just happy to be there. He was sort of a foil and still played a very tough match. But that's a different player than the guy today who won the previous major and is ranked higher.

But so much of this is about the moment. Medvedev became the favorite coming in when Djokovic was deported. He's still in the tournament, but he's had some rocky moments. He's had some five-setters. He's lost control a few times. And he’s trying to do what no male player in the Open Era has done: win your first major and then win the next one. And I think the crowd will be for Nadal. They realize history is at stake. It will be interesting to see, in the women’s final, too, if history is motivation or if it's a burden.

Daniil Medvedev previously lost against Nadal in the 2019 US Open men's singles final. 

Daniil Medvedev previously lost against Nadal in the 2019 US Open men's singles final. 

Nadal has really minimized the history in his interviews, but every now and then he slips. He knows what's at stake. And not only that, but the French Open is next. If you had told him six weeks ago that he could surpass Federer and Djokovic and not have to play either in the Australian Open final, he would have signed that paper. So, at some level, he's happy to be here. This is gravy. He didn't know whether he’d play at all. He played his tournament, the French Open, and lost to Djokovic. He clearly wasn't 100 percent. He tried to come back in July and clearly wasn't 100 percent then either. He didn't play again the rest of the year. 2021 was kind of a bust for him. But if he wins his 21st with the French Open looming, that's a pretty big potential pivot in this whole greatest-of-all-time discussion.

CA: Well, despite all this nonsense, you have to think Djokovic is the heavy favorite at the last two majors of the year.

JW: If he plays! That's the big x-factor now. Who knows if Djokovic plays and who knows what this lack of match preparation does to him if he does play. Six months ago, we were all saying Game over, and now, who knows.

CA: And if Djokovic isn’t playing at Wimbledon, then who knows what Federer might be able to do there.

JW: Well, he can look to the 2022 Australian Open for motivation.

More Tennis Coverage: