As Rafael Nadal prepares for his latest Australian Open semifinal — the 30th major semifinal of an iconic career — he has crossed one important threshold: the Australian Open quarterfinals.
No single tennis situation, in terms of one round at one tournament, has been more consistently associated with pain — and heartbreak — for Nadal. He had to retire from last year’s quarterfinal against Marin Cilic. He was in visible pain eight years ago against David Ferrer and could not compete anywhere close to his best. He was weakened and depleted in the 2015 Australian Open quarters against Tomas Berdych. Getting through the quarterfinals is a significant achievement. The taping on his abdomen, seen at the end of his match against Frances Tiafoe on Tuesday, offered a reminder of the “Australian Open curse” which has dogged Rafa in his career.
Now, the focus turns to a semifinal against Stefanos Tsitsipas. Anyone who has followed tennis closely has followed Rafa closely. If you have been paying attention, you know that the equation for success in non-clay tournaments has changed for Nadal over time.
In 2012 and 2013, Nadal was still a player who could slug until the end of time and knock antlers with Novak Djokovic in hardcourt five-setters. Nadal had Djokovic in trouble in the 2012 Australian Open marathon final, but a costly miss midway through the fifth set turned that match around. Nadal didn’t lose because of his endlessly patient playing style; he lost because he missed a key shot in a big situation… and because Djokovic took advantage of that miss.
Now, though, endless patience can’t be expected or desired for Nadal on non-clay surfaces at major tournaments. His most recent Australian Open semifinal underscores this point.
Nadal did defeat Grigor Dimitrov two years ago at this stage of the Australian Open, but his tolerance for pain and suffering led to a roughly five-hour match which undeniably carried an effect in the subsequent final against Roger Federer. (Yes, to be absolutely clear, and just in case you’re about to let me know, I am fully aware that Nadal having only one day off before the final, whereas Federer had two, mattered in shaping that reality. I know.)
While it is true that Nadal plays on the Thursday semifinal and Djokovic plays on Friday, Nadal can’t worry about Djokovic when playing Tsitsipas. The key for Nadal is to play and win a semifinal which is half as long as the Dimitrov battle he barely endured in 2017. It is a point no Rafa fan or observer should find the least bit controversial or objectionable.
As Nadal gets older — 32 going on 33 later this year in June — he can’t endlessly slug the way he once did. The facts paint a rather clear picture here. Nadal’s 4:49 match against Dominic Thiem, plus a very long win over Karen Khachanov earlier in the U.S. Open, caught up with him in the semifinals against Juan Martin del Potro. Last year’s fourth-round battle with Diego Schwartzman exacted a cost which showed up in the latter stages of the Cilic match. The Dimitrov semifinal two years ago in Melbourne was costly against Federer.
Nadal simply can’t play especially long matches if he wants to win more hardcourt majors. His 2017 U.S. Open championship involved only one match longer than three hours, and that went 3:15 (Leonardo Mayer in round three). That’s not an idle coincidence. That’s a strong correlation.
This is why the first five rounds of the Australian Open have been perfect for Rafa. He absolutely needed this to be in position to contend for the title. Six years ago, playing a four-hour four-setter at some point along the way might have played his way into form. Today and likely in the future, Rafa will need these smooth progressions at hardcourt majors to have a real chance.
So, as Tsitsipas looms, the game has changed: Nadal can’t expect — or hope — to win this match by wearing down the 20-year-old. Let me be clear in explaining that statement: Nadal COULD very EASILY do just that, but he can’t expect to win that way in the sense that he can’t allow himself to think that way. Nadal’s expectations need to be centered around starting quickly and putting the match to bed.
This is not the way Rafa approached matches in his physical prime. He didn’t have to think about the strong early start because if he lost a first set, he almost always had the ability to display his trademark patience — his “colm” — and slowly but steadily reel in his opponent over the next three or four sets. Now, though, he can’t keep himself in that framework on non-clay surfaces at the majors.
Sure, if Nadal does lose the first set, there is no one better in tennis at staying within himself and figuring out a way to solve problems. However, Rafa can’t depend on that reliable modus operandi this time. He needs to land an early punch, stagger his young Greek foe, and put the boot on the throat, getting off court quickly so that he can derive the full benefits of two full days off before Sunday’s final, should he get there.
The greatness of Rafael Nadal is still quite evident. What has changed? The answer is clear: the formula for maximizing his greatness in this event and future non-Roland Garros major tournaments.