Rafael Nadal lost the Australian Open final, but he may be primed for another spectacular run
Rafael Nadal seems back to his best, and the rest of the tour should be very afraid.
Do you BEL18VE in H15TORY? If you do, the 2017 Australian Open final may have been the best possible antidote to all of your worries.
Roger Federer's 18th Grand Slam victory has dominated all the headlines in the last two days, and rightly so. But before the start of the match, the BEL18VE campaign was in danger of being drowned under the force of the H15TORY movement. And even though Nadal ultimately lost, the thrilling finale well and truly signaled his return to relevance; who else could have put up such an epic fight just two days after being pushed to his absolute limit in the semifinal?
Rafael Nadal is back to the ‘beast mode’ he has so incredibly made his own over the years, and everything seems right with the world again. But guess what, he's not done yet – not even close. It may be just a matter of time before H15TORY becomes a reality; with the French Open coming up, the Spaniard is arguably the favourite to lift his 10th title there – and 15th Slam overall.
Did any of us think that was possible two weeks ago?
Let's not kid ourselves. By the end of 2016, Nadal was considered ‘finished’ for all practical purposes. Another strong Roland Garros run was always going to be a possibility, but his chances at the other Slams seemed almost non-existent.
Nadal's results at his last six non-clay Slams read like this: 4th round, QF, 2nd round, 3rd round, 1st round, 4th round. It doesn't take Einstein to figure out that something was fundamentally wrong – either with the Spaniard's game, or his mentality. He was too good a player to be bounced out that early and that often, even if he was playing on unfavourable surfaces.
When the Spaniard pulled the plug on his 2016 season after losing at the Shanghai Masters, the alarm bells got too loud to ignore. Things were slipping at a disturbingly quick rate for the 14-time Slam champion; his forehand had become an unreliable wreck, and his serve had become batting practice for every journeyman he ran into. He was hanging on to a place in the top 10 of the ATP rankings, but precariously so.
What changed between then and now?
Not a lot, really. And that's as much a testimony to Nadal's greatness as anything he's achieved in his glittering career.
Yes, he did get Carlos Moya to join his coaching team, and he did get a new haircut that had social media abuzz. But there weren't too many other dramatic changes to his game or to his approach; he just got down to the basics, and discovered that he still has life in those legs.
That said, there were a few subtle improvements that he made in the off-season. The most visible of those was in the forehand; not in its technique or the amount of revolutions he was imparting on the ball, but in the patterns and decisions he made with the shot. The inside-out version was hit with more control and spin, even if it meant earning less winners. And the crosscourt version was back to its venomous best, pulling his opponents well wide of the tramlines to set up the finishing shot.
The backhand, however, was a revelation – most strikingly in the matches against Raonic and Dimitrov. Predominantly muscling it crosscourt, Nadal used his less-favoured wing to devastating effect almost every time he was pushed into a corner by a hooked righty forehand. Court positioning is perhaps more important to Nadal's fortunes than any other player, and he had his backhand to thank for helping him stand his ground at the baseline throughout the tournament.
The serve continued to remain a worry, and it would ostensibly seem that he was helped by the fact that his last three opponents – Milos Raonic, Grigor Dimitrov and Federer – aren't particularly known for their backhand returns. But the one time he did run into a player with a punishing two-hander – against Alexander Zverev in the third round – he was rock-solid on the serve. He put 75% of his first serves into play, and won a remarkable 62% of his sercond serve points. He got broken just twice in a four-hour match, which is something that would have made even John Isner proud.
Stats like those should remind everyone that Nadal doesn't win matches through sheer brute force alone. Nadal is who he is not only because of his physical attributes, but also because of his underrated tennis IQ.
He knew he could safely persist with the serve to the backhand against Raonic, Dimitrov and Federer, and that worked for the most part. But against Zverev, he used the serve down the T in the ad court – which to my mind is his best serve – much more frequently, and earned rich dividends.
Federer is often hailed for his efficiency while navigating through the early rounds of tournaments, but maybe Nadal is now getting there too. He did what he needed to in every match he played in the tournament, and that brought him to within three games of the title.
In Nadal's case though, ‘doing what he needs to do’ always involves a LOT of running. And wasn't that a joy to behold.
The Spaniard may be on the wrong side of 30, but his speed and explosiveness remain as thrillingly brilliant as ever. As his legs ate up the courts in Melbourne, his body whizzing to every corner of the court, the memories of 2008-09, or even 2010, or 2013, were rekindled. There are very few sights in tennis as spectacular as a full-speed Nadal sprint followed by a viciously spinning forehand pass, and he deserves our gratitude for bringing that sight back into our lives.
But there was also something new, a trick shot that showed us he can wow us with his hand skills just as easily as his footwork. The slice forehand winner (video below) that he reflexed off a crushing Federer backhand in the final brought the roof down, and then some.
Will Nadal look back at this Australian Open as the the one that got away? By most accounts he was in with a decent chance once Djokovic and Murray were knocked out. And by the time he had straight-setted Raonic, with the prospect of playing a player with a one-handed backhand in each of the next two rounds, it looked like the tournament was his to lose.
The failure to hold on to the 3-1 lead in the decider against Federer will rankle for a while – particularly the missed forehands on both the break points he lost in the set. But knowing Nadal, he will put that out of his mind well before the claycourt season arrives. He confirmed as much in his post-match press conference.
“I believe that playing like this, good things can happen. (They) can happen here on this surface, but especially can happen on clay. On clay I recover better than here, then the opponents don't get that many free points, and I am playing from the solid baseline,” he said.
“If I made that happen, I think I can keep having success in hard courts, but on clay can be special,” he added with a bit of an ominous warning for the rest of the tour.
As with most Nadal quotes, this one had truth bombs wherever you looked. Yes, if he keeps playing like this, good things can indeed happen. And yes, he looks primed to have another ‘special’ season on clay. With Djokovic seemingly on the wane and Murray still finding his clay feet, it would be hard to bet against Nadal in Paris.
And after what transpired in the last two weeks in Melbourne, will anyone ever bet against Nadal again, anywhere?
He is fit again, his forehand is working again, and he seems to have rediscovered the fire in his belly. With the decision to bring on Moya already paying dividends, Nadal may well be on the verge of yet another belief-defying season, scything through the tour like a knife through butter.
But even if he doesn't, that's alright. What he did in Melbourne this year is worth a million memories, and if it's our job to take each match as it comes, without any expectations, then so be it. God knows he's given us enough to savour and cherish already.
“I am with big personal satisfaction. I cannot say that I am sad,” Nadal said before signing off from Melbourne.
As tennis fans, we can't be sad either. Whether H15TORY comes to pass or not, Nadal has already created more history than we could have possibly hoped for, and that's all that we can ask.