The year’s first tennis Grand Slam event is over and it seems that the Australian Open 2022 was destined to be a great event. Even before it began, it caught the world’s attention with the drama around Novak Djokovic’s deportation. The tournament has become a talkpoint because of the extraordinary last day heroics in the men’s final. What a final it was — it showcased the tennis cultures of two great tennis nations, Spain and Russia. Rafael Nadal edged past Russian challenger Daniil Medvedev in a five-set thriller after being two sets down in a match that had so many twists in the tale.
Rafa Nadal’s victory at Rod Laver Arena takes him to an incredible 21 Grand Slam titles.
How the final match played out
For the first two hours, Medvedev did not put a foot wrong and even the great Nadal did not have an answer. In a clinical display, the Russian took the first set 6-2. Medvedev showcased a level of toughness that is ironically associated with Nadal. In Russia, one is forced to play tennis as an indoor sport because of the harsh winter. Few things are as tough as a Russian winter, and mental toughness is what Medvedev displayed in the second set, even though Nadal, at one point, had broken in the fourth game and was leading 3-1. Yet the Russian managed to take the second set into a tie-break and came back from behind to win 7-6. Medvedev’s two-handed backhand down the line was proving to be the Achilles heel for Nadal. It meant that if Nadal had to win from this point, the match would have to go full five sets.
The situation looked grimmer for Nadal, bearing in mind what had happened in the quarter-final against Denis Shapovalov. In that match, Nadal had suffered fatigue and was physically in discomfort. He had managed to somehow win the fifth set. But the final was different. Unlike the quarter-final, Nadal was not ahead but two sets behind and his opponent was making him suffer. In his landmark book, The Secrets of Spanish Tennis, ace tennis player Chris Lewit digs deep into the tennis culture of Spain where the word “suffering” has a special status. It means one has to endure and persist before victory is achieved. Legendary Spanish coach and former player José Higueras gave an insight into Spanish tennis wisdom by explaining that defensive play is not passive and one needs to be in the match by retaining physical stamina to wait for the opponent to weaken. Almost every Spanish player from Manuel Santana to Carlos Moyá (Nadal’s current coach) has played with this philosophy.
Rafael Nadal is a paragon of this tennis culture. Nadal clawed his way back in the match by somehow breaking Medvedev at 4-4 and took the must-win third set with 6-4. The fourth set was when Medvedev began losing a bit of his stamina with the trainer often seen massaging his legs. Yet, to his credit, the Russian served brilliantly and matched Nadal at the baseline. The physical discomfort did not reduce the quality of his play. So incredible was his play that Nadal, at no stage, could run away with the match. What the loss of stamina did do was to bring about the odd unforced error from Medvedev at a few crucial moments in the fourth set. This helped Nadal close the fourth set at 6-4.
The fifth set was a remarkable battle. At 5-4, 30-0 it seemed Nadal had it on his racquet, but the tough Russian winter had taught Medvedev to survive many a crisis. The Russian immediately broke back to level the match at 5-5 in the decider. Now it was time for the Spanish great to showcase his country’s great tennis culture. Remarkably, Nadal broke Medvedev again to serve for the championship. It was an improbable victory for Nadal, but more importantly, tennis was the ultimate winner.
Pitted against Spanish suffering
Medvedev is no loser. He matched Nadal in every department of the game, except one: the ability to win points at the net. This is what makes the big three win their close games. The new generation of top-ranking tennis players have managed to match the three greats of modern tennis at the baseline, but it is their failure to beat them at the net that has made the difference between winning and losing.
Medvedev made crucial errors with some of his volleys and net play. Nadal’s many comebacks in crucial Grand Slam matches are legendary and now part of tennis folklore, but in Spanish tennis culture, this is expected. At a time in the match when Nadal was two sets behind, I made a phone call to my friend, former world no. 1 and French Open champion Juan Carlos. I tried to reason with him that at age 35, surely Nadal could not come back after losing two sets.
“He has to, he has no choice,” replied Juan Carlos. Another friend of mine with the same name, Juan Carlos, coach to former two-time French Open champion Sergi Bruguera, said the same. It is part of Spanish tennis culture to keep on competing, irrespective of the match situation. The Australian Open 2022 Final gave us an insight into two great tennis cultures.
How tough it was for Medvedev as he was not just playing against Nadal but also against the spectators who were totally in favour of his opponent. The Russian was never outclassed. He just ran into a tennis culture that enjoys suffering and excels in competitive spirit.
The best tennis has to offer
It is worth repeating that Rafael Nadal is a paragon of the tennis culture of his country. Look at the circumstances in which Nadal arrived in Melbourne.
His chronic foot injury ensured that he only played one tournament in the last seven months of 2021. His own medical team had feared that he would never be able to return to the court. It’s a miracle that Nadal competed for 5 hours and 24 minutes to beat an opponent who is 10 years younger than him. As tennis lovers, we should consider ourselves very lucky to witness an era where three men have now won 61 grand slam trophies among them.
This Australian Open shall not be easily forgotten. It revived Australian tennis through Ash Barty. It brought life back into double’s tennis thanks to the fireworks of Kyrgios and Kokkinakis, and, above all, it showed us how doggedly Rafa Nadal survived a tough Russian winter. The Australian Open 2022 gave us one of the best sporting spectacles. Nadal, in the twilight of his illustrious career, rallied to win 2-6 6-7 (5-7) 6-4 6-4 7-5 in Rod Laver Arena against US Open champion Medvedev who was going for his second successive major title. It was the second-longest Grand Slam final in the history of tennis, and during the presentation ceremony, one of the greatest athletes in history had to sit on a chair on the court because of the effort he had just put in during the five-set marathon. We are living in the best era of men’s tennis.
Kush Singh @singhkb is founder, The Cricket Curry Tour Company. Views are personal.
(Edited by Neera Majumdar)