Ever since a wide-eyed 17-year-old emerged from a Mediterranean island to play in front of 27,300 rabid Davis Cup fans in a Seville soccer stadium, Rafael Nadal has inspired us and touched our hearts.
Over his storied 19-year career he’s become emblematic of a gentleness, compassion and integrity that has, of late, been slipping away from us. And, in recent weeks, as Novak Djokovic’s saga drained much of the oxygen out of our sport, Nadal’s core human goodness seemed more evident and more needed than ever. Nadal is hardly some kind of heroic figure up on a white steed. It just seems this way.
Of course, few imagined that, with his fierce style, Nadal would even be playing at 35. No other elite tennis star has so struggled with injuries. In August he was sidelined by another battle with his rebellious left foot, and when he did return to play an Abu Dhabi exhibition he got COVID.
But lately, fate has not been entirely unkind to the Spanish conquistador. For two radically different reasons, both of his longtime rivals, Nole and Roger, are far from Laver Arena. The prime obstacle in his path to the final, No. 3 Alexander Zverev, suffered a flat tire in the fourth round, and Rafa saved four set points as he prevailed 16-14 in an epic tiebreak battle against a zoning Frenchman, Adrian Mannarino.
But now, to continue his march to a record 21st Slam title, the aging battler with the bulging muscles and thinning hair would have to step it up and subdue an emerging Canadian swashbuckler. Rafa and Denis Shapovalov, the two best lefties in the world, have a curious history. As a shy nine-year old, Denis had tossed the coin before a Rafa match. As a 17-year-old blond rookie with Russian heritage, he scored a shock upset over Nadal at the Canadian Open. And on Tuesday, the No. 14 seed was coming into his quarterfinal brimming with confidence. His Canadian team had won the ATP Cup and he’d scored impressive wins over Reilly Opelka and Sascha Zverev.
But, at the start, Denis was less than a menace. His rhythm was off. His footwork was problematic. He couldn’t unleash his aggression. “He looks like a kid out there,” said Australian Open Radio. “Like a deer in the headlights.”
Three loose points from Shapovalov gave Rafa his opening. The Spaniard imposed his much-feared down-the-line forehand. His serve dictated. His volleys found the open court and Shapovalov was left in a fearsome Nadalian wake. Denis’ only solace was to bark at his Friends Box and futilely complain to the ump that he wasn’t being fair because superstar Rafa hadn’t been called for time violations. But Carlos Bernardas was blunt: “Why are you looking at me?”
Seemingly Nadal was en route to a tidy win. He sprinted to a 6-3, 6-4 lead. The legend’s mastery was on full display.
But Shapovalov is a superb talent with a fighting spirit you can’t miss. Liquid and light, he revved up his aggression and baffled Rafa with his corkscrew serves and spinny forehands, increasingly charging the net.
Still, at 3-3 in the third set, Nadal had a flash opportunity to secure two key break points. But on a makeable backhand passing shot, he blinked – not all of Picasso’s strokes were flawless.
The Canadian’s confidence soared. He reduced his errors. His chest swelled, his swagger came out of hibernation. “If Shapovalov can keep up his belief, this could be interesting,” noted commentator Chris Bowers. “I wonder when the heat will catch up with this 35-and-a-half-year-old.”
The Australian Open, where Rafa has only won once, and the Melbourne quarterfinals in particular, have often been horror shows for the Spaniard. In quarters at his beloved French Open, Wimbledon and the US Open, Nadal has a stratospheric 29-2 record. In the Aussie Open quarters he was 6-7. Last year he ran out of steam against Stefanos Tsitsipas, and he’s often left Melbourne hobbling with knee, hamstring or leg injuries. “It’s true,” Rafa realled, “I’ve been a little bit unlucky with injuries here and sometimes I was unlucky because the opponents were better than me.”
The heat of Shapovalov’s shots and an oppressive Melbourne afternoon soon combined with the reality of five-set matches. Momentum shifts are common. Nadal began to fade. His serve, forehand and speed all faltered. His dominance vanished. He winced as Shapovalov soared. “I am not 21 any more,” he’d later quip.
The match flipped, and the 22-year-old was ascendent. Now Denis was a menace, seemingly en route to victory. As Rafa grabbed his sore stomach, the Canadian pulled away and grabbed the third and fourth sets to even the match.
Beleaguered and aching, Nadal seemed like a beaten old man. He later confided, “I was destroyed, honestly, physically.” His only refuge was the locker room. He headed off for a much-needed and controversial seven-minute retreat.
Shapovalov had won his last four five-set matches and soon had a break point. But he couldn’t convert. Rafa’s serve had gained its previous power. Maybe the pills he took kicked in or he tapped into the fountain of youth. Then again, after winning the first two sets, the legend had only lost twice in his career.
Tuesday, the master seemed to draw on his greatness. Incredibly, he stunned the tennis world as he drew on his powerful will to wrest control of the battle. Beyond the impact of a warrior’s shots, we saw the power of his mind. Thanks to a let chord winner and an adept volley, Nadal broke early in the fifth set. That was all the edge he needed as he marched to a 6-3, 6-4, 4-6, 3-6, 6-3 win.
Shapovalov almost certainly is bound for the very top. But he didn’t handle his loss well. Never mind that long ago he blasted a ball that severely injured the eye of a Davis Cup umpire. Or that in Tuesday’s match he often barked at his Friends Box and he yelled at the ump, “You’re all corrupt!” Just after he lost the match he smashed his Yonex. Of course, it was a crushing loss. Still, he seemed like a peevish boy.
Not surprisingly, Nadal felt Shapovalov’s pain: “I honestly feel sorry for him. He played a great match for a long time…Of course it’s tough to accept to lose a match like this, especially after I was feeling destroyed…Probably he will understand later on, after he thinks [what] the proper way [is to finish a match].”
Rafa, who will have two days off before he faces Italian Matteo Berrettini, thought his win was a miracle: “I was lucky…For me it’s amazing, honestly, to be in the semis…The real true is that two months ago we didn’t know if we will be able to be back in the tournament at all. [Now] here I am.”
Then he put it all in perspective, saying, “For me it’s just a present of life, that I am here playing tennis.”
MARVELOUS MADDY: Madison Keys, who lost seven of her last eight matches in 2021, continued her astonishing ‘22 run. After winning five matches to collect the title in Adelaide, the No. 81 Keys powered her way past the No. 11 seed Sofia Kenin, No. 8 seed Paula Badosa and No. 4 seed Barbora Krejcikova. Now into her fifth Grand Slam of her career, Keys will will face the dominating Ash Barty, who crushed Jessie Pegula, and will remain world No. 1. Along with Danielle Collins, she’s the only American left in the draw and is playing with extraordinary power, composure and stamina.
HAPPER MARSHALS MEMORIES: Powerful administrator Marshall Happer, who was at the core of the turbulent beginning of men’s pro tennis, has just published a stunning history based on a decade of research: “Pioneers of the Game: The Evolution of Men’s Professional Tennis.” WTA President Micky Lawler said, “This game is as intense behind the scenes as it is on the court. The thick plots that evolved on the international stage rival any adventure in Ian Fleming’s James Bond series.”
Jimmy Connors concurred, saying, “This is a story that needs to be told.” Ivan Lendl candidly recalled, “I was opposed to many of the rules that Marshall held us to and we fought all the time, but looking back, he had an impossible job which he tried to manage in the fairest way possible.”
“I think I’m gonna cry…You come out here and everyone starts crying.” – Madison Keys to Jelena Dokic, who’s gaining acclaim for her poignant on-court interviews
“Nick Kyrgios has done a lot of crazy s–t, but making people care about doubles might just be the craziest.” – reporter Vince Rugari
“I train in Orlando in the summer and I think it’s the hottest place on earth.” – Madison Keys
THE SPECIAL K’s ROLE ON: Aussies Nick Kyrgios and Thanasi Kokkinakis are creating waves with their run to the doubles semifinal. They’ve downed the No. 1, 6 and 15 seeds, to the delight of a roaring, liqufied crowd. Kyrgios said, “I’m not done yet, I want to f–king win this thing.” When asked if the semis and finals should be played on the smaller KIA arena, Kokkinakis said, “I hope Craig [Tiley] keeps us here. The rowdier the better.”
GO FIGURE: Matteo Berrettini became the first Italian man to reach an Aussie Open semi…Gael Monfils lost his eighth Slam quarterfinal…The Aussie Open will have two first-time women finalists…Through the quarterfinals Ash Barty has only lost 17 games…Meshkatolzahra Safi became the first Iranian girl to win a junior Grand Slam match.
THERE’S NO ONE LEFT TO BLAME: Pro tennis is a nerve-wracking affair, and now with electronic line calling, players can’t vent their emotions by verbally blasting linespersons. All that’s left to squawk about is the details of assorted time regulations.
Also Reporting: Douglas Hochmuth, Frances Aubrey