The legend lives on!
“One month-and-a-half ago I didn’t know if I would be able to be back on the tour again,” Rafael Nadal confided to the Australian Open crowd. A chronic foot injury that left him on crutches and a case of Covid in late December put his trip to Melbourne and even his career in jeopardy.
Yet, as The Great Ones so often do, Nadal defied the odds. He won a warm-up tournament and then streaked to his sixth Aussie Open final. But the 35-year-old Spaniard was haunted by heartbreaking losses in several previous finals, most recently in 2017 after leading Roger Federer 3-1 in the fifth set. Just one of Nadal’s 20 record-tying Grand Slam titles had come Down Under.
Against Daniil Medvedev, it felt like deja vu again. The rising Russian star led by two sets, and Nadal needed something, anything, to turn the tide. As Nadal told the cheering spectators, “I was repeating to myself during the whole match, ‘I lost a lot of times here having chances, sometimes I was a little bit unlucky.’ I just wanted to keep believing until the end.”
The Great Ones keep believing, but they also keep problem-solving and fighting no matter how bleak the crisis.
Medvedev, the villain in this final just as he was in their 2019 U.S. Open final, had staved off a set point when Nadal led 5-3 in the second set. Medvedev rebounded to force a tiebreaker. He clinched it 7-5 with a backhand passing shot. When he raised his arms in exultation, the fans booed.
Trailing, 2-6, 6-7, Nadal’s crisis deepened. He lost the first two points of the third set. Then Medvedev, extraordinarily fast and agile at 6’6”, flashed his trademark defence to neutralise the rally and hit a backhand winner. That made it love-40 and three break points for Medvedev. The crowd suddenly became silent. Would — could — their favourite recover?
The next crisis came at 2-3 in the third set when Nadal fought off three more break points.
“Over the years, Nadal has said you have to be willing to suffer,” ESPN analyst Patrick McEnroe noted. “He’s suffering now but not in the way he would like.”
Tactics would play a major role in this comeback because Nadal had to change his losing game. His grinding style hadn’t forced enough errors from the high-percentage counterpunching of Medvedev. So Nadal decided to deploy every shot in his vast repertoire. He would combine finesse with power and capitalise on short balls with his superior volleys.
A feathery drop shot winner made it 15-40. A forced backhand error by Medvedev 30-40. And Medvedev’s ill-advised, low volley from No-Man’s-Land 40-all. Four points later, Nadal ended a gruelling power rally by forcing a Medvedev forehand error to hold serve. Crisis averted.
“Like a prize fighter on the ropes, Nadal keeps throwing punches,” said McEnroe. “That’s why people love him.”
They sure didn’t love Medvedev, who was fighting both Nadal and hostile spectators. ESPN analyst Darren Cahill, a former coach of the absent Roger Federer, noted, “How good has Medvedev’s composure been with 95% of the crowd against him.” So far, so good, anyway.
Nadal kept the pressure on his 25-year-old, less-experienced opponent, and in the ninth game of the third set, it paid off. He won the first point on Medvedev’s serve with a spectacular flick passing shot from the backhand corner. Only the improvisation of a superb athlete could have pulled it off. Starting to look a little stressed and fatigued, Medvedev netted a terrible drop shot to go down 15-40. The merciless crowd booed. At 30-40, Nadal conjured a backhand passing shot down the line that eluded the lunging Russian for a critical service break. 5-4 for Nadal.
In one of his best games of the final, Rafa crushed four winners — three forehands and one backhand — to wrap up the 6-4 set at love. The spectators rewarded him with a prolonged ovation. Nadal had decisively switched the momentum and was back in the match. “It showed how big the crowd can be,” said former champion John McEnroe. “It energised Nadal and bothered Medvedev.”
Much like Nadal’s classic victory against Federer in the 2008 Wimbledon final and his spectacular marathon loss to Novak Djokovic at the 2012 Australian Open final, this duel featured punishing rallies, jaw-dropping shot-making, and score fluctuations. And the raucous crowd loved every minute of it.
Just as he proved in the 2019 U.S. Open when he was down two sets, Medvedev can also battle with the best of them. At 2-all in the fourth set, he escaped six break points with a variety of shots and tactics. The most creative was a surprise serve and backhand volley winner. But his luck ran out on the seventh break point when Nadal finessed a Medvedev drop shot with a nifty, sharply angled, slice backhand passing shot. That gave Nadal a slim but vital 3-2 lead.
The ageless legend was impressively winning the war of attrition. Serving beautifully at 5-4, Nadal grabbed four straight points to even the match at two sets apiece.
Advantage Nadal here if past performance were an indicator. Nadal was 22-13 in five-setters over his 20-year career, while Medvedev was only 3-7.
After breaking Medvedev’s serve with a forehand winner for a 3-2 lead in the deciding set, Nadal faced both opportunity and crisis in the fluctuating sixth game. The Spaniard fended off three break points when the Russian erred on backhand returns of serve. Medvedev should learn from Nadal and Federer and adopt a slice backhand for greater consistency when he’s stretched wide. But it took five game points before Nadal finally won the crucial game to go ahead 4-2. Even The Great Ones are susceptible to nerves. Serving for the championship at 5-4, Nadal blew a 30-love. He double-faulted to make it 30-all. When he stroked a backhand into the net to get broken for 5-5, spectators groaned.
Nadal hadn’t come back from two sets down since 2007. But this ultimate warrior would reverse the momentum one more time. In the next game, he converted his third break point when Medvedev blasted a forehand beyond the baseline. That gave Nadal a 6-5 lead and championship game.
This time there would be no nerves or indecision. Ahead 30-love, Nadal belted an ace, only his third but by far his most important one. On championship point, Nadal sealed his historic title with a graceful backhand volley Medvedev couldn’t return.
The 2-6, 6-7, 6-4, 6-4, 7-5 tour de force lasted 5 hours and 24 minutes and ended at 1:15 a.m.
The Spaniard’s multi-faceted victory celebrations are almost as entertaining as his shot-making. This time the jubilant Spaniard dropped his racquet, put his hands on his face, smiled broadly, pointed to the crowd, fist-pumped several times, raised his arms, and finally dropped to the court and sat with knees bent, his signature move. Then he dashed to the Player’s Box and poignantly hugged his team. When his father stretched down to reach him, Rafa hugged him and kissed his forehead.
Nadal’s command of English has improved enormously over the years, but he’s remained the same humble, genuine person he was when he captured his first major at the 2005 French Open as a teenager in pirate pants. At the trophy ceremony, he spoke from the heart, saying, “At the end, for the history is about the victory, no? But the way that you win the match in terms of personal feelings is different. The way that I achieved this trophy tonight has been just unforgettable, one of the most emotional matches of my tennis career, without a doubt. Means a lot to me.” As always, Nadal empathised with his valiant but vanquished opponent. “I know it’s a tough moment, Daniil,” the classy champ told the crowd. “You’re an amazing champion. I’ve been in this position a couple of times trying to have the trophy with me. It has been one of the most emotional nights in my tennis career, and to share the court with you is just an honour.”
Medvedev was equally gracious in defeat. “What Rafa did today was amazing... It was insane,” Medvedev said. “The level was very high. You raised your level after two sets for the 21st Grand Slam. You are an amazing champion, I think you guys have a good rivalry still. Congrats, it was unbelievable.”
Medvedev actually won more total points than Nadal, 189 to 182, but Nadal won most of the biggest points. That’s what champions do.
Barty takes her home slam to the delight of a nation
As Ashleigh Barty’s passing shot whizzed past Danielle Collins on championship point, the adoring crowd roared, even louder than they had so many times during the final. On the grounds outside Rod Laver Arena, fans watching big screens jumped in joy. Many in sports-crazy Australia celebrated at Barty Parties. For the first time in 44 years, an Aussie had won their home Grand Slam singles title.
The trophy presentation showed once again why the humble Barty is one of the most popular Australian athletes in history. She thanked her family for coming — “I am incredibly fortunate and a lucky girl to have so much love in my corner.” She paid tribute to her team — “I love you guys to death and you are the best in the business.” And acknowledging the spectators, she said, “As an Aussie, the most important part of this tournament is being able to share it with so many people…. I’m so proud to be an Aussie.”
Some had wondered whether the boisterous home crowd would prove a huge advantage or an oppressive burden as Ash attempted to end the long title drought. After all, since Chris O’Neil, a dark horse ranked 110, hoisted the Daphne Akhurst Cup in 1978, six Aussies had fallen short in the final.
Samantha Stosur, the 2011 U.S. Open champion, nervously crashed out in the first round at the 2012 Australian Open. In the Sydney Morning Herald, two-time finalist Pat Cash said, “I know what she’s going through, with the pressure of being an Aussie playing in Australia after winning a Grand Slam title. It gets really tough for us here. The problem is, we love our country so much, but we spend so much time going around the world. When you are here, every minute seems precious, and yet so many factors seem to be conspiring to make it even more difficult.”
Fortunately, those factors seemingly don’t affect the upbeat Barty. She thinks of tennis as fun. And when the training, the travelling, and the competition are no longer enjoyable, she simply takes a break. That’s what she did as a teenager for 18 months when she was burned out from the burden of high expectations following a stellar junior career and promising pro debut. She quit the tour and played pro cricket Down Under. Ash also took a break from the grind last year after the U.S. Open.
The 25-year-old Barty appeared relaxed and confident when she took on Madison Keys in the semifinals this fortnight. And why not? She had romped through five outclassed opponents, facing only 12 break points and surrendering just 17 total games.
Keys, who upset Barty in their last match in Adelaide a year ago, overpowered 2020 surprise AO champion Sofia Kenin, No. 8 seed Paula Badosa, and 2021 French Open winner and No. 4 seed Barbora Krejcikova, who was hampered by the heat. Her only close call came against Wang Qiang 4-6, 6-3, 7-6 (10-2), though she finished strongly, smacking five winners in the lopsided tiebreaker.
During the pandemic, Keys, the 2017 U.S. Open finalist, suffered from a malaise. She confided, “Just knowing what I was thinking about last year and the deep, dark pit of despair that I put myself into because of that, I don’t want to go back to that. I don’t want to let myself borderline hate being on the tennis court and hate competing. If I let myself think that way, that’s where it goes.”
Happily, things have gone much better for Keys in 2022. Her 10-match winning streak included winning a tune-up tournament in Adelaide. But ESPN analyst Mary Joe Fernandez, cautioned, “For Keys, it’s all about controlling her nerves. That’s been the biggest obstacle in her career.”
Keys’ shaky nerves and Barty’s superior athleticism and versatility gave the Aussie the first set, 6-1. “The only way to beat Barty is to hit to her forehand and come in on her backhand,” advised ESPN analyst Rennae Stubbs. That one-two punch rarely happened. Instead, to disrupt Keys’ rhythm and defuse her power, Barty stroked backhand slices, bouncing an average of only 25”, and much-faster, accurate forehands. That backcourt combination, plus her potent serve, finished off the error-prone American 6-1, 6-3.
“I’ve not seen a player look this good since Serena Williams got to the [2017 Australian Open] final,” said all-time great Martina Navratilova. One reason was Barty had mostly abandoned her mediocre two-handed backhand. Confounding inflexible opponents, she deployed the nasty slice 85% of the time, up sharply from 54% last year.
Since 2017, six different American women had reached Grand Slam finals — Serena and Venus Williams, Keys, Kenin, Sloane Stephens, and 2021 AO runner-up Jennifer Brady. Collins would become the seventh. But she had to display her trademark fighting spirit to do it, pulling out close three-set victories over Danish teenager Clara Tauson and Belgian veteran Elise Mertens.
The late-blooming Collins has repeatedly overcome adversity with extraordinary determination. She came from a family of modest means, and her sacrificing father practised with her early in the morning at different public parks and drove her to tournaments. After not playing much as a freshman on the University of Florida team, Collins transferred to the University of Virginia. There she won the NCAA title as a sophomore and then had wrist surgery and captured the title again as a senior. “[She was] an utter warrior in singles,” Vanderbilt’s Geoff McDonald, who coached against her college teams, told The New York Times.
In 2019, Collins was diagnosed with rheumatoid arthritis; and nine months ago, she underwent surgery for painful endometriosis to remove a tennis ball-sized cyst. Overcoming these health problems strengthened her resolve to get to the top and made her appreciate her recent success even more.
It was a hazardous rock-climbing trip with fellow pro Bethanie Mattek-Sands last year though that gave Collins, who had been scared of heights, a new perspective about tennis competition. She recalled, “I think halfway through it, had to be at least a four-hour experience, I realised every time I step out on the court, it’s not life or death. For people in rock climbing, it can be. That was a huge moment of growth for me.”
After Collins polished off Alize Cornet 7-5, 6-1 in the quarterfinals, the 32-year-old Frenchwoman called Collins “a lion.” Iga Swiatek must have felt like she was facing a tiger in the semifinals because Collins tore her apart with 27 winners, including seven on serve returns. The 2021 French Open champion was overwhelmed 6-4, 6-1. A thoroughly impressed Swiatek said, “I think that was the fastest ball I ever played against in a match.” Indeed, Collins was not only pounding her two-handed backhand with ferocious power but she was pouncing on balls from inside the baseline like a female Jimmy Connors.
Could the 50-1 pre-tournament longshot pull an upset over Barty, the world No. 1 for the past three years? The consensus of tennis experts favoured Barty, who had lost only one set this year, to Coco Gauff. The betting odds were heavily 1-5 for the Australian. But Lindsay Davenport, the 2000 Aussie Open winner, said, “There’s something about Collins. I think she’s going to do really well.” Mary Joe Fernandez, a two-time AO finalist, didn’t discount Collins either, saying “She has so much belief in herself. She goes out there thinking, ‘I can win this.’”
The first set went predictably to Barty. Mixing up her serve masterfully, she belted seven aces and kept Collins off-balance with a subtle mixture of power and finesse, topspin forehands, and slice backhands. She held serve easily except for the fifth game when she fended off a break point with a forehand crosscourt winner. Her accurate, deep groundstrokes kept Collins on the run, and when she put away an easy forehand, Collins faced her first break point at 2-3, 30-40. Misjudging the wind at her back, Collins double-faulted to lose her serve. With Serena-like aggression, Barty swept the set’s final game at love. After an ace up the middle clinched it, 6-3, the crowd responded with a standing ovation.
Tennis reveals character, and in the second set, both players showed plenty of it. The resilient Collins hit the ball harder and earlier to break Barty for a 2-love lead. She pumped her fist, but didn’t did get in Barty’s face, which would have enraged the crowd. More and more Collins was dictating the points. After the American got another break to extend her lead to 5-1, the stunned spectators went almost silent.
“Barty is going to have to impose her game on Collins again,” said Fernandez. “She is going to have to match Collins’ aggressiveness.”
The tenacious Aussie did exactly that. She started the next game with a crosscourt forehand winner and broke serve for 5-2. When she easily held serve for 5-3, the momentum had clearly shifted. Serving for the set at 5-4, Collins fell behind 30-40, when Barty attacked her second serve, forcing a forehand error.
Miffed at a spectator who cheered during the point, Collins complained to the umpire. The wildly partisan fans booed. Collins’ trusty backhand erred on a deep Barty slice, and the score evened at 5-all. At the changeover, the merciless fans booed the American. Riding that momentum, Barty forced a tiebreaker, the first for both players during the fortnight.
The spectators cheered thunderously after every Barty point. Two errors made it 2-0 for their hero, and a forehand winner 3-0. Barty ignited a ripper of a point with a drop shot and finished it with a spectacular leaping overhead winner. The crowd responded with what Stubbs called “the loudest roar I’ve ever heard in this arena.” Fittingly, Barty clinched the 7-2 tiebreaker and her third major title with a picture-perfect, forehand crosscourt passing shot.
It was a heartbreaking loss for Collins, who played her first Grand Slam final with no shoe or apparel endorsements, and more importantly, without a travelling coach. Even so, she shot up from No. 30 to No. 10 in the rankings. She should rise even higher if she adds more versatility to her one-dimensional power game.
No doubt, fired up by the intense ending and the magnitude of the match, Barty unleashed an uncharacteristic primal scream to celebrate. “Yeah, it was a little bit surreal,” she said afterwards. “I didn’t quite know what to do or what to feel, and I think just being able to let out a little bit of emotion, which is a little bit unusual for me, and being able to celebrate with everyone who was there in the crowd, the energy was incredible tonight.”
Ash calls herself, “a true blue Aussie as true as they can come,” and her devoted fans understood just how much this title means to her and to Australia. In Aussie lingo, her awesome performance was a bloody ripper.
With major titles on grass, clay, and hard courts, Barty needs only the U.S. Open to complete a career Grand Slam. The odds have never looked better for this true blue Aussie. Expect more bloody rippers.
Nicknamed “The Happy Slam,” the Australian Open was anything but that two weeks ago. It began with confusion, anxiety, and controversy as world No. 1 Novak Djokovic lost his legal appeal to stay in Australia after an 11-day drama. Instead of vying with Nadal for his 21st Grand Slam title, the unvaccinated Serb was deported on public interest grounds.
Soon enough, though, attention focused on the players and the matches, and compelling storylines abounded. Teenage phenoms Emma Raducanu and Leylah Fernandez, the shock U.S. Open finalists last September, were eliminated early. But another ascending teenager Clara Tauson displayed her talent by upsetting No. 6 seed Anett Kontaveit 6-2, 6-4 and extending finalist Collins to 4-6, 6-4, 7-6. Amanda Anisimova, whose classic, hard-hitting game resembles Maria Sharapova’s, saved two match points and stunned four-time Grand Slam winner Naomi Osaka in a 4-6, 6-3, 7-6 (10-5) thriller.
On the men’s side, dynamic Carlos Alcarez, the youngest seeded player since Michael Chang in 1990, nearly upset No. 7 seed Matteo Berrettini, succumbing 6-2, 7-6 (3), 4-6, 2-6, 7-6 [10-5] in an exciting, four-hour slugfest. Felix Auger-Aliassime also showcased his terrific talent before Medvedev outlasted him 6-7 (4), 3-6, 7-6 (2), 7-5, 6-4. “He was playing insane, like better than I have ever seen him play,” the impressed Russian said. Denis Shapovalov, another gifted young Canadian, knocked out No. 3 seed Zverev 6-3, 7-6 (5), 6-3 and then scared Nadal in their 6-3, 6-4, 4-6, 3-6, 6-3 quarterfinal. American Maxime Cressy showed serve-and-volley tennis is alive and well when he surged to the fourth round where he took a set from Medvedev.
Happily, Australians had plenty to cheer about in addition to Ash Barty. Nick Kyrgios, an outrageous showman, and his longtime friend Thanasi Kokkinakis won the doubles title. The unseeded “Special K” duo nipped another all-Aussie team, Matt Ebden and Max Purcell 7-5 6-3 in the entertaining final. Although beloved wheelchair superstar Dylan Alcott lost in the quad final, he was named Australian of the Year during the tournament as much for his feats — winning 15 singles and eight doubles major titles — as for inspiring a nation.
Above all, the Aussie Open climaxed with two riveting finals highlighting four of the most admired competitors in tennis.
The season’s first major created fascinating questions. Will Nadal, the solid favourite to win a 14th French Open, surge ahead of the field and move halfway to a calendar Grand Slam? Or will Djokovic finally get vaccinated, return to competition, and try to equal Nadal’s new record of 21 majors? Medvedev has more incentive than ever after his narrow loss to Nadal to dethrone the best remaining two of the legendary Big Three. Lastly, will Barty, who has claimed majors on all three surfaces, dominate the women’s game, or will Osaka rebound to create a much-needed women’s rivalry?