What is the most characteristic point one associates with Rafael Nadal?
The Spaniard haring along the baseline, and often six feet or more behind the paint, running around the backhand, finding improbable angles and lines, prompting awe among spectators and bewilderment in opponents.
This style of play has worked wonders on clay – as evidenced by his scarcely-believable 13 titles at Roland Garros. But to pigeonhole Nadal as a one-trick pony would be doing great disservice to his skills and resourcefulness. He has won every Grand Slam at least twice, and judging by how he went about turning the tide against Daniil Medvedev in the Australian Open final, he has several arrows in his quiver, which he can employ with devastating effect. If one strategy isn’t working, he is quick to use another one and often equally adept at it.
Going into Sunday’s showdown, Nadal may have known that his Plan A – trading in long baseline exchanges, forcing the opponent into errors, and hitting pinpoint passing shots when one ventured forward – may not be sufficient against the Russian, who is akin to Novak Djokovic in his playing style with the added advantage of a bigger serve.
That’s why the left-hander came to the net a lot more from the outset, even serving-and-volleying on many occasions. He also employed the slice many times. Some of his reflex volleys brought the crowd to its feet. It didn’t work at the start of the match, as Medvedev’s level of play was quite high and he put a lot of pressure on the Spaniard.
The Russian’s greater consistency tilted the scales in his favour.
Nadal’s level of play improved in the second set, and he found more ways to hurt the Russian. He began to move Medvedev around the court more expertly, and was a break to the good for most of the set. One of the best shots, arguably of the whole tournament, was a drop shot on the way to a break of serve. Played from mid-court, the angular shot had such deception that the Russian, camping much behind the baseline, stumbled as he moved forward and was on all fours (all five, if one includes his racquet) for a moment.
But Medvedev was simply relentless at this stage, and refused to give up on the set. Nadal’s below-average service – his first serve percentage was dodgy throughout the match – always kept the Russian interested and he pushed matters into a tie-breaker which he edged.
Adding the oomph factor
Down two sets, not many would have given Nadal much of a chance, given that the Russian’s level of play was incredibly high and the last time the Spaniard came back to win from a similar situation was almost 15 years ago. The win predictor shown by the broadcasters after Medvedev held serve to open the third set gave Nadal a four percent chance.
He had nothing to lose at this stage, and must have decided to go down all guns blazing, if he indeed was to go down. He added the pace on his groundstrokes – by a staggering 20 kmph – to keep his opponent on the backfoot.
To Medvedev’s credit, he withstood the barrage and earned three break points at 3-2, which would have almost felt like match points.
But here, maybe, the World No.2’s over-eagerness to finish things off worked against him. Nadal summoned all his trademark determination and resilience to repel the threat, but at that moment it felt only like a temporary reprieve. The score was 4-4 and Nadal was barely holding on by his fingernails, when the Russian dumped a simple volley into the net. It would have mattered little if Medvedev hadn’t let the x-factor have a bigger say in the match.
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The Rod Laver Arena crowd was almost totally in Nadal’s corner and even cheered Medvedev’s errors. As he sarcastically applauded the crowd after that volley error, the Russian lost focus from the job at hand. Nadal got the opening he craved, broke serve and took the third set.
Drop and run
The complexion of the match had changed. The Russian got visibly agitated at the crowd, and went on another rant at the chair umpire. It didn’t help his cause that the long hours on court during the tournament, 17 hours before the final, began to catch up with him in the fourth set, and Nadal is the last opponent one would wish to face when not feeling a 100 percent.
Medvedev, understandably, tried to shorten the points. His first serve was still a big weapon but while he was coming up trumps in most of the baseline rallies earlier in the match, now he was a step slower to get to the ball and often had to go for the riskier options.
Nadal, on the other hand, now realised that his own tryst with destiny was a big probability. And as has often been the case with him, Djokovic and Roger Federer, he raised his game at the crucial stage, playing on adrenaline – almost negating his 35-year-o
Battle-scarred Marco with less than ideal preparation for the season, as well as an opponent 10 years younger.
It was at this stage that the two players almost became involved in a contest within a contest. Drop shots became so frequent that they lost the element of surprise. But while the Russian’s attempts betrayed a desperation to end points early, Nadal used them to add to his opponent’s pain and discomfort. The Spaniard’s speed on the court got him to most balls, and he emerged victorious in most of these exchanges. It was only a matter of time before the match went into the decider.
looking for an opening
Medvedev was physically struggling and on the wrong side of the jeering crowd, but to his credit, he hung on. His great serve kept him in the match, but Nadal was almost as usual, even if his own serve was below average. As the Russian ran around the pitch, he continued to fight valiantly. Nadal got the break midway through the fifth set when he managed to stretch his opponent out in a few rallies, but Medvedev never pulled out of the match.
He even frustrated the Spaniard when he served for the match at 5-4. But Nadal was not going to deny him after all.