An older, more economical Rafa Nadal can still fight

At 35, tennis great shows he has learned to save his legs at Australian Open

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Rafael Nadal (who was not kicked out of the country!) is doing pretty well in the Australian Open.
Rafael Nadal (who was not kicked out of the country!) is doing pretty well in the Australian Open.
Photo: Getty Images

Because he’s five years the junior of Roger Federer, it’s been interesting to watch Rafa Nadal’s career kind of trail in Federer’s wake and how much it follows this same path. At 35, much like Federer did at age 35, Nadal entered this Australian Open off a huge injury layoff, as he didn’t play after the French Open last year due to a foot injury. After such a layoff at such an age, it was a real question what Nadal might look like. One doesn’t bounce back in their mid-30s like they might in their 20s. What will they have changed? What will they allow for their age and rustiness? What if they look…bereft?

Whereas Fed showed up with a bigger racket to hit a little bigger, Nadal showed up with a slightly different approach. As strange as it might seem, Nadal has accepted he can’t turn every point into a strap match, and was seeking to be a touch more economical in points and in matches. He’s gone bigger on both his first and second serve, trying to get more free and cheap points. He has let other shots against him just…go. Watching Nadal just watch a ball pass him by is something of absurdist art. It just doesn’t add up, even if it’s still technically in the same category as what you know. But no one can get away without accounting for time, and even though Nadal has been able to bully just about everything and everyone through sheer will, even Superman finds Doomsday.

Nadal also caught something of a break when Novak Djokovic went all Novak Djokovic and got himself Jazzy Jeff’d out of the country. Which pretty much leaves him and Danil Medvedev as the only Grand Slam winners in the draw. And that count is still 20-1.

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The conditions last night came up in Nadal’s favor for his quarterfinal against Denis Shapovalov, or so we thought. First it was during the day. Second, it was ungodly hot. Which meant that the court would cause Nadal’s groundstrokes to bounce higher, accentuating the cheat-code spin he gets on his forehand especially. It also meant that if it became a test of fitness and will and simply who wants to suffer more in the Melbourne sun…well, whoever beats Nadal at that?

For the first two sets, everything looked just like that. Thanks to the higher bounce of the court in the heat, Nadal got to run some of his Federer playbook against Shapovalov, who also employs a one-handed backhand. Having to hit everything around his shoulders robbed Shapo of his power and accuracy off the ground, causing him either to spray shots all over the court trying to capture his usual oomf or leave hanging curves for Nadal to get his own winners. Shapovalov’s insistence on taking full swings at Nadal’s serve-in-overdrive instead of blocks and chips kept him from breaking, and he made just enough errors to donate Nadal the only two breaks he would need to go up two sets to none.

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And then…the world got weird.

Shapovalov took the next two sets. He looked the fresher, the fitter, the more willing to grind it out. As the third and fourth sets went on, Nadal looked worse and worse for wear. Shapovalov, sensing this, didn’t have to aim for the corners quite as much. He could just put the ball deep, and Nadal lost the verve to run around his backhand to get to his forehand. He was getting pushed around. As he got more desperate, he went for more and more on the serve, tossing in more double faults than he ever had in a Grand Slam match (four in the 3rd set alone).

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Outgrinding Nadal, coming back from two sets down against Nadal, wanting a fifth set against Nadal in the heat…this used to be on the same level as wanting to chicken fight in the ocean against Jaws. He reveled in that. Everyone except Djokovic would see their heart drop through their feet watching Nadal chase down a sure winner somewhere near the third row and summoning his own inconceivable winner from there, four hours into a match. You could watch opponents’ souls just decide, “Ok, that’s enough for me. I’m outta here,” after getting the slightest glimpse of a victory in the deep water of a fourth or fifth set.

And yet here was Nadal, also suffering from stomach problems that could have been the result of the heat, just watching winners travel by him, calculating he didn’t have enough in the tank to chase them down and keep going. Or dumping second serves into the net. Or not being able to offer answers to a more assertive but controlled Shapovalov. If you squinted, you could see the end of Nadal’s career on the horizon. It echoed Nadal’s loss in Melbourne last year, also at the quarterfinals, when he blew a two-set lead to Stefanos Tsitsipas. Has Nadal become reachable to the younger generation, finally? Had the city walls been breached?

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Yeah, well…even though he knows what he can’t do now, and even though he has to shift gears in a way he never has before, he’s still just about the last person you want to be in deep with. It just wasn’t the roar of the charging bull that Nadal used to be.

Maybe it was the court being covered in shade finally to lower the temps on court. Maybe it was the medication taking hold. Maybe it was the break after the fourth set that he took (which Shapovalov didn’t handle well). Maybe a combination. Whatever it was, Nadal went into a controlled pillage in the fifth set. He only made five unforced errors, but only six winners. But his forehand was hopping again. He was able to get around his backhand to get to it again. Only two of his double faults came in the final set. He won half his second-serve points. Nadal was simply happy to throttle back a half-gear, keep the ball deep but in play, and let Shapovalov let the moment get to him. No wild fist pumps, no “Vamos!” Maybe he was too tired. Maybe at 35 it’s not as much of the arsenal. He got his break in the second game of the set, and simply leaned on Shapo from there. Nadal decided to not give anything, and Shapo couldn’t take anything.

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Nadal was the winner in a grueling five-set match,6-3, 6-4, 4-6, 3-6, 6-3.

It’s a different form of fighting. It’s not in a rage or fury. It’s knowing exactly what the car has and how many laps are left. Nadal might not have the legs at 35, but he’s certainly got the brains. And to overcome that is no less challenging, as Shapovalov found out last night.