Across the 20 seasons that Rafael Nadal has spent travelling the world as a professional tennis player, he has slowly and with great difficulty compiled one of the greatest sporting CVs the world has seen. He has won at his best, when his body has been close to crumbling and also so many times in the vast grey area in between, but what he has achieved so far this year already stands high on his endless list of achievements.
After a six-month lay-off due to a chronic foot injury, a recent bout of Covid-19 and swirling doubts about whether he would ever return to competition, at the age of 35 Nadal has risen to produce one of his most improbable runs to a grand slam final at the Australian Open.
Under the Rod Laver Arena roof on Friday afternoon, Nadal picked Matteo Berrettini’s weaknesses apart across two brilliant sets and then survived a late, intense surge to win 6-3, 6-2, 3-6, 6-3 and reach his sixth Australian Open final, where he will meet the No 2 seed, Russia’s Daniil Medvedev, on Sunday.
“Overall, it’s a particularly exciting success for me,” said Nadal, speaking in his Spanish press conference. “Perhaps more exciting than a victory, than a grand slam title, because of how unexpected it was, because of everything we’ve been through in recent months.”
After hearing for so many years that his playing style would not be conducive to a lengthy career in his sport, Nadal continues to succeed deep into his career. He is now the fourth oldest man in the Open era to reach the Australian Open final and only four other men his age and over have reached any major final. Nadal has additionally compiled a 9-0 record in 2022 after also winning a warm-up tournament in Melbourne.
Most notably of all, on Sunday he will compete for his 21st grand slam title and the chance to break his tie of 20 major titles with Novak Djokovic and Roger Federer, becoming the sole owner of the men’s all-time grand slam record. Despite the looming possibility of more history, Nadal said that while his competitive spirit is in his “personal DNA” and his goal is to win, he is also taking things differently after the past few months. He has resolved to enjoy the strides he has made because simply being able to play tennis is a greater priority to him than winning tournaments.
He said: “At the end of the day, and being very honest, for me is much more important to have the chance to play tennis than win the 21, no? Because that makes me more happy in terms of general life, to be able to do the thing that I like to do more than achieving another grand slam.”
The match-up issues for Berrettini, the seventh seed, were always clear. While he can unleash hell on his opponents with his serve and forehand, his backhand is by far the worst shot on the court in most matches against the best. Unfortunately for Berrettini, he just so happened to be standing before a player who has spent his career tearing the weak backhands of right-handed players apart.
From the very beginning, Nadal, the sixth seed in Melbourne, relentlessly pressured Berrettini’s backhand with his heavy top-spin forehand, constantly dragging the Italian off the court and eliciting ample errors from it. He also exposed the younger man’s mediocre return of serve, serving well and breezing through his service games.
Despite his technical deficiencies that can be exploited by the best, the passion that Berrettini plays with is undeniable. He fought back in the third set, then he played a quality return game at 4-3 en route to a fourth set. As Berrettini demolished the ball off both wings from on top of the baseline, he had his chances to fight for even more, pushing a tense Nadal to 15-30 at 3-3 in the fourth set before missing a finishing forehand. But even as the rallies lengthened, and the match had shifted, Nadal held on to win.
When Berrettini’s final backhand flew out and the crowds roared in support for the returning finalist, Nadal looked to his team with his fists pumped, his face a picture of surprise and joy.
As he returned to his seat, he crouched over his racket bag and sobbed into it. Nadal later explained that he was thinking of all of those challenging times over the past six months when his future prospects in the sport were so uncertain.
“The reality is that not only a month and a half before, but three weeks ago, we saw it very difficult or almost impossible when we landed in Melbourne to be where we are today,” Nadal said. “But hey, in the end life gives you these kinds of surprises, these kinds of opportunities and I’m enjoying it to the fullest. I can’t be thankful enough for all the support I’m getting here. The stands are supporting me practically unconditionally.”
Before the tournament, even when it was not clear that Djokovic would attempt to travel to Melbourne, little thought was given regarding Nadal’s prospects of winning his 21st grand slam title here.
Nadal played his own chances down as he said that he was simply looking to see how his body and his game would react after such imperfect preparation. It seemed like a sensible outlook. But throughout his career Nadal has defied logic, and as he returned to compete for another Australian Open title, he has done so once more.