Whether Rafa Nadal likes it or not, and he probably doesn’t mind because he seems an amiable sort, he’ll be more closely linked to Roger Federer than Novak Djokovic. It was Federer who was unchallenged for years until Rafa built a base on clay, and then slowly ate into his advantages on grass (beat him in his third try in the Wimbledon final) and hard courts. It was Nadal who set a new target for Federer to rise to, and Djokovic to chase and then surpass. However, it is Nadal, at least for now, who can claim to be the best ever. After all, he’s the only one sitting with 21 Grand Slam titles, and he’ll always be the first man to have gotten there.
Nada’s path to 21 is awfully similar to Federer’s path to 18, which at the time no one had done either. Federer went into the 2017 Australian Open off a huge injury layoff, having missed every major tournament the previous year. Nadal came into this one having missed Wimbledon and the US Open last year. Both had new approaches that made allowances for their advancing years (both were 35 at the time). For Federer it was a bigger racket, that allowed him to go for more off his backhand and not worry about framing or mis-hitting so many shots as more and more players brought more spin to that wing. For Nadal, it was a more aggressive game, a bigger serve, even more of a penchant to get to the net, and the actual admittance that he couldn’t chase down every ball. Neither were really expecting to win the tournament after a layoff and coming to terms with their adjustments.
And for two sets in the Australian Open final, it sure looked like Nadal wouldn’t.
Rafa ran up against what is probably the best hard-court player in the world right now in Daniil Medvedev. And when he stared across the net at Medvedev, he saw a lot of the same skills that Nadal had 10 years ago. Or he saw a pterodactyl with a tennis racket, which is basically what Medvedev is. He’s 6-6, but moves like he’s 5-10, and with that wingspan and mobility, you could see Nadal’s frustration at finding nowhere to put the ball where Medvedev couldn’t get it. The hundreds of opponents Nadal has made the same face at were nodding their heads in empathy.
And at 6-6, Nadal’s spin didn’t really put Medvedev in any discomfort, because you simply can’t bounce the ball high enough to make his groundstrokes uncomfortable. Medvedev would just hammer his backhand up the line, getting to Nadal’s weaker side, and Rafa would either have to slice in defense or miss going for something more.
After getting basically barbequed in the first set, Nadal simply pushed the car to the point it was shaking in the second. Going for lines, hitting as big as he could, just living in the absolute last margin of error. He was brilliant, even though you could feel the frame of the vehicle starting to give way. Corners, lines, they were all hit.
And he still lost the set in a tiebreak, and it felt over. It felt even more over when Medvedev was at 0-40 in the third set’s sixth game, but he didn’t stamp out Nadal’s light by breaking through. Leave any flicker with Nadal, and his endless well of fight will find a way.
And Nadal’s economical handling of the rest of the tournament allowed him to go back to the old version just long enough, and just hard enough, to last over five hours to claim his 21st major. Sure, he had to pull out the kitchen sink. He needed Medvedev to tire and lose his first serve for a bit. He needed Medvedev’s decision making to turn to mush for the last two and a half sets, with misplaced or simply bewildering drop shots or easy winners passed up to hit back right where Nadal was standing.
But Medvedev will have a lot of friends and peers who will tell him they also couldn’t figure out why they kept making the wrong choice against Nadal. Why his constant just “being there” caused them to panic. That’s what Nadal does. He’s not going to give you anything, and he can not give you anything for longer than anyone not named “Djokovic.” Even at 35. This was the time to just be obstinate, after all the times he eschewed being so to save his energy.
Sure, there were still some ridiculous forehands that seemed to bend time, or beautiful volleys, or incomprehensible defense. But Nadal’s greatest strength, even at 35 and with a surgically repaired foot (temporarily so likely), and the rest of the joints that probably ache more than they used to, is that he can just be defiant. To just say no. And because he learned he couldn’t do that every match, every point, he could do it when it mattered most.
Will that work every tournament? If it’s Federer’s path Nadal is truly walking, if only for a short time. If Novak continues to have his brain drip out his ear, he’ll basically be unopposed in Paris come May. As for the rest? Federer could only make it work for another year, and he didn’t have the hard miles that Nadal does given the way Nadal has played. Who knows how long that foot will hold up? Or something else.
But it seems Nadal sure has figured out how to make the most of the time that he does have.