21st century, 21 Nadal majors

There is so much to say about Rafael Nadal’s 21st major title and his second Australian Open championship, won over Daniil Medvedev in a highly dramatic denouement on early Monday morning in Australia. Everything can’t be said in one piece, so where’s the starting point of this conversation (not so much the endpoint)?

Plenty of valid answers exist, but I’ll go with this one: Be ready.

Be ready to adjust when things aren’t going well. Nadal adjusted after a dismal first set. He didn’t win the second set, but he made Medvedev think and reconsider what he was doing. Nadal also made Medvedev — not a comfortable volleyer — hit more volleys. He made Medvedev, a very adept baseline hitter, leave that area and run to the service box. Nadal badly needed to win the second set, and he failed to do so. Yet, even though he trailed two sets to love, he had forced Medvedev to put in more work than he otherwise would have.

He gave Medvedev a chance to get tired. Medvedev was nervous to begin with, realizing how close he was to a major title. Much as Stefanos Tsitsipas froze when he took a two-set lead over Novak Djokovic in the 2021 Roland Garros final, Medvedev noticeably tightened up and hit with a lot more weakness and timidity in the third set than we would normally expect.

Nadal’s readiness to use a slice and then throw in looping topspin made Medvedev think a lot more about the balls he was going to hit. Thinking — conscious thought — is not an athlete’s best friend. Sure, knowing where to hit the ball is accompanied by thought, but that is an in-the-moment response which flows from a plan. When I refer to conscious thought, I am thinking more about the monologue of the mind and the voices in a person’s head. The stream of thoughts which flows through our minds is part of the clutter of our mental existence, whereas seeing a ball and hitting to the open backhand corner is a fluid read-and-response set of actions.

Nadal made Medvedev think very intentionally, pulling him out of the natural read-and-response rhythm which characterizes Medvedev’s baseline hitting.

Nadal didn’t passively accept his fate. He did continue to ask questions. It’s true that Medvedev played very poorly in sets three and four. It’s true that Medvedev got nervous, independent of the physical wear and tear he was carrying. Yet, Nadal did things to make Medvedev’s body and mind question themselves. He wasn’t just a bystander while Medvedev imploded. Rafa tried to do something about his dire situation in the early stages of the match.

He was rewarded.

Rafa was ready to compete in the fifth set — not just of this final, but of the quarterfinal against Denis Shapovalov, when he was suffering from heat stroke. By surviving that match and getting two full days of rest before his semifinal against Matteo Berrettini, Nadal brought himself to this final, giving himself a chance to win the Australian Open for a second time and complete the “Double Slam” Novak Djokovic won at Roland Garros last year.

Nadal was ready. He was open to the moment. He didn’t play dominant tennis — at 35, on surfaces other than clay, he isn’t generally going to dominate — but he was his usual problem-solving self. He didn’t allow this match to crater.

Finally and crucially, he was ready to pounce on his opportunity when Medvedev did indeed falter.

Be ready for what life has to throw at you. That’s a great message for students entering college (university), young people who are entering their first big job, and couples who have just been married.

Oh, and for 21-time major champions as well.

We’ll have much more on Rafael Nadal’s historic Australian Open title in the coming days. Stay tuned.

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