“Sport is unpredictable. I kept remembering how many times I lost here like 2012 [5 hours, 53 minutes in five sets to Novak Djokovic] and 2017 [Roger Federer in five sets]. I was not ready for these battles, but today was the day I gave everything.” (Press conference in Melbourne following Rafael Nadal’s victory at the 2022 Australian Open)
Down the first two sets in the best three of five against the second seed twenty-five-year-old Daniil Medvedev, the thirty-five-year-old Nadal who was seeded sixth in the tournament said following the match that his win in this year’s final at the Australian Open was the greatest comeback of his career. I say amen, Brother Tennis Man. For five hours and twenty-four minutes, you gave everything.
Pretty asked me Saturday night if I planned to watch the men’s singles final beginning at 3:30 a.m. Sunday, and I replied no, I think I’ll just record it. Pretty looked surprised since I watched the women’s final at that mad hour Saturday morning and had watched Rafa’s previous six matches to get to the final. No one, including me, was surprised with Aussie Ash Barty’s win over American tennis player Danielle Collins in straight sets in the women’s singles final. I enjoyed the match, but I had no intense feelings about the outcome.
The Nadal/Medvedev match was a horse of a different color. My love for Rafa has grown over the past twenty years along with the increased coverage of televised “live” tennis tournaments. I like his passion for playing each point regardless of the score, the work ethic he brings to preparation, the respect he has for his opponents, his own love of sport in general and tennis in particular. I even find his obsessive compulsive behavior entertaining. Whenever I had the opportunity to watch Nadal play on television, I took advantage of it. So when Pretty asked me if I was getting up to watch the final at 3:30 a.m., she thought I would say yes.
Uncharacteristically I said no, I don’t think so. Too much was on the line in this match for Nadal. He was tied in the race for men’s Grand Slam singles tennis wins with Roger Federer and Novak Djokovic at 20 each. History was hanging in the balance in the AO final for him. He had only won the Australian title once in his twenty year career – in 2009 when he defeated Federer in five sets. That was one win in seventeen tries. Not a great track record down under. Plus I knew Rafa had been plagued for the past six months with surgery and rehab on his left foot that was always a problem for him so he had limited preparation for this tournament. In addition, Rafa had tested positive for Covid in December, been very sick for two days and wondered what effect the virus would have on his stamina. I believed it would take a miracle for him to win against Medvedev, and I honestly didn’t want to see it “live.” My nerves would be jangling, I thought. That’s why I said no when Pretty asked me if I was going to get up at 3:30 a.m. Sunday.
But of course, I woke up at 4:30 a.m. wondering about the match. Curiosity got the best of me, and I staggered into the den to click on ESPN. As I feared, Nadal had lost the first set 2-6; but as the second set began, I saw something in the way he was competing that appeared more forceful than I had hoped. I was hooked, but he lost the second set in a tiebreak that was, oh so close.
Mind over matter. The spirit must be willing for the flesh to suffer as Nadal often says his uncle Toni Nadal taught him from the age of three when he began learning to play tennis on the island of Mallorca in Spain. Uncle Toni’s training has been reinforeced by Carlos Moya who is Nadal’s team captain, the leader of a small group of friends on his team that supported Rafa as he transcended tennis history to become the first man to win twenty-one Grand Slam Titles in singles at the 2022 Australian Open. It was Nadal’s version of the Mallorca Miracle in the final three sets – a clinic in determination, persistence, and brilliant problem solving under immense pressure. Billie Jean King says pressure is a privilege and if she’s right, no one is more privileged than Rafa Nadal was in the last three sets of the AO final.
2-6, 6-7, 6-4, 6-4, 7-5 was the score when the last gong sounded for Medvedev who had competed like the champion he is in the long, grueling match that pitted the two men like sweaty prize fighters in a boxing ring instead of the Rod Laver Arena with a seating capacity of 14,000+ fans that were overwhelmingly supporting Nadal. The Aussies love their tennis – Nadal is a favorite – the crowd was pulling for Rafa. Poor Daniil who Rafa said afterwards “always has been nice to me.”
“I’m so tired I can’t even celebrate,” Nadal said to the reporters at his press conference following his victory. He had to ease down in the chair provided for him to sit and answer questions about the match and his future.
“I know no one expected me to win…but the support of the crowd helped me…I understand what 21 means, and I feel honored. Of course it means very much to me…my love for the game, my passion for it, my working spirit to play a beautiful sport that makes me happy. I know I have fewer chances to win so I stay more in the moment now than looking toward the future…”
Alana Holmberg for The New York Times
I was never a very good tennis player when I was a member of the tennis team in high school but I enjoyed playing for fun in college and the years beyond. My serve and volleying days are over, but my passion for the game lives on. Thank goodness for the magic of the fuzzy images of the small screens that became larger ones in high definition in my lifetime. I’m grateful to have lived in the golden age of the Big Three men plus a diverse collection of women legends over the past six decades that includes Billie Jean King, Chris Evert, Martina Navratilova, and the Williams Sisters (Serena and Venus – not Pretty and Darlene).
I said farewell to the 2022 Australian Open this past weekend – Pretty is hopeful the clay court season starts soon and that The Tennis Channel will have better coverage for me than ESPN did for the summer down under.
Rafa Nadal at the Australian Open in 2012
Stay safe, stay sane, get vaccinated, get boosted and please stay tuned.