Rafael Nadal’s quest for history appeals amid sense of Daniil Medvedev’s growing aura

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·5-min read
Rafael Nadal’s quest for history appeals amid sense of Daniil Medvedev’s growing aura
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Of all the campaign speeches Daniil Medvedev could have given after advancing to the Australian Open semi-finals, “Be like Novak” was perhaps an ill-advised selection. The reference to men’s world No 1 Djokovic, and the ensuing boos, was a jarring reminder of all the controversy and drama that dominated the build-up to the opening grand slam of the year, and which had largely been left behind once the on-court action began.

Djokovic’s absence threatened to cast a shadow over the men’s tournament but the void has been filled by two weeks of gruelling, competitive and largely unpredictable matches, resulting in a final four and two semi-finals of the highest, available, order. All four semi-finalists – Medvedev, Rafael Nadal, Stefanos Tsitsipas and Matteo Berrettini – have survived five-set epics in the second week. There are sure to be more to come.

Medvedev’s duel with Felix Auger-Aliassime on Wednesday was the latest case in point: a thrilling battle over four hours and 42 minutes which saw momentum swings and a magnificent comeback from two sets and match point down. The world No 2, and tournament favourite, was staring down the barrel of elimination when he summoned inspiration from Djokovic, as well as, it should be said, Roger Federer and Nadal.

The Russian’s recognition of the big three was a reminder of the prevailing awe and sense of thrall those great champions cast over the sport, and will do for a generation to come – and yet a further chapter in their story could yet be written this week.

While Medvedev has the opportunity to bridge the gap by becoming the first male player since the big three to win back-to-back grand slams, and although the potential emergence of the next dominant player in the sport is a compelling storyline, it pales in comparison to Nadal and his quest for history which has grown tantalisingly, and unexpectedly, close.

Nadal arrived in Australia a few weeks ago on the back of testing positive for Covid and a season ended early by a foot injury, but the Spaniard is only six sets away from eclipsing Djokovic and Federer with a 21st grand slam title. It would be a staggering achievement in the face of time, his body, and the hungry chasing pack.

Rafael Nadal outlasted Denis Shapovalov in the quarter-finals (AFP/Getty)
Rafael Nadal outlasted Denis Shapovalov in the quarter-finals (AFP/Getty)

“I really don’t care that much,” Nadal said this week, reflecting on the “doubts” that had shrouded his latest injury comeback and made him question whether it was possible to return. “I don’t believe my future happiness is going to depend on if I achieve one more grand slam than the others [Djokovic and Federer].”

Nadal said it was a “miracle” to come through his five-set win over Denis Shapovalov, amid accusations from the 22-year-old Canadian over “unfair” treatment and “corrupt” officiating. The Spaniard’s response, along the lines of, ‘You’ll understand when you’re older’, was one of the few instances where he has shown his age and the generational gap has become apparent.

In case it needed reminding, Nadal is the outlier here. Not just in terms of his 35 years – Medvedev and Berrettini are 25 and Tsitsipas is 23 – but also in physicality and experience, outlook and perspective. Nadal’s 36th grand slam semi-final appearance is compared to a combined 14 from the other three, who are also connected in that they all lost to Djokovic in a grand slam final last season – Medvedev at Melbourne Park, Tsitsipas at Roland Garros and Berrettini at Wimbledon.

Like his semi-final opponent Nadal, Berrettini went the distance in his quarter-final as he produced a stunning final-set display to see off the challenge of an inspired Gael Monfils. The Italian was defeated by Nadal in their only previous career meeting, which happened to be Berrettini’s first appearance in a grand slam semi-final at the US Open in 2019. He has grown in status and stature since, however, and was verging on indomitable as he saw off Monfils 6-2 in their decider on Rod Laver.

Tsitsipas, meanwhile, had his five-set epic for the last-16 meeting with Taylor Fritz but produced his performance of the tournament in seeing off Jannik Sinner in straight sets in the quarter-finals. The Greek, who has been bothered by pain in his elbow following surgery at the end of last season, was sluggish against Fritz and only staved off defeat after winning the crucial points down the stretch.

Daniil Medvedev saved match point before defeating Felix Auger-Aliassime (Getty)
Daniil Medvedev saved match point before defeating Felix Auger-Aliassime (Getty)

It made what followed, his sensational return to form against Sinner, all the more impressive. It was a statement victory from the fourth seed ahead of his ninth career meeting with Medvedev. The Russian has won six of the previous eight, including in the semi-finals at the Australian Open last year, and remains the one to beat.

The US Open champion’s victory over Auger-Aliassime on Wednesday will go down as one of the matches of the season and his performance had all the hallmarks of those legendary Djokovic, Nadal and Federer comebacks. It was a further reminder, too, that Medvedev has developed what the other contenders for the throne, including Tsitsipas and Alexander Zverev, have only shown in spurts: a winner’s mentality, and one to be respected and feared in equal measure.

It got to Auger-Aliassime, and if Medvedev continues like this, that mentality and grit will begin to get recognised, like it did with Djokovic, as an elite asset among a tool of weapons. There is a growing sense of aura surrounding Medvedev and although informing the Rod Laver crowd that he was channelling his inner Djokovic may not have been the most popular of admissions, it sure is a terrifying one for the rest of the final four.

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