The story of Rafael Nadal at the 2019 Australian Open is simultaneously familiar yet easy to misread. The reality Nadal inhabits is nothing new in this era of men’s tennis, but this reality is not entirely what you might think it is.
Does this sound mysterious and cryptic? Sure it does.
I will now try to remove this layer of mystery and unpack a detail many casual observers will miss in this Golden Era of men’s tennis.
Why IS this a Golden Era of men’s tennis? There are many equally valid ways to answer that question, but for the purposes of this specific article on Nadal and his 2019 Australian Open, I will provide a particular answer: You can play a great tournament and yet run into a god-mode-level opponent in the final, which is EXACTLY what happened to Rafa in the final against a flawless Novak Djokovic. Nadal deserves at least an A-minus for this tournament, and if you wanted to give him a straight A, I would not argue. Djokovic, of course, would then deserve an A-plus. (This is little different from the women’s tournament and how I would rate Petra Kvitova relative to Naomi Osaka.)
The outwardly obvious reality of the Big 3 Era is that these three icons of the sport have run into each other on a number of occasions in a semifinal or final. This is true. What is also true is that the simple PRESENCE of another Big 3 player can reasonably be identified as the main reason a given Big 3 player (or players, plural) did not win a major tournament in a specific instance. Plenty of these examples exist in all directions, with Roger Federer being included in the mix.
To be clear, then, people are not wrong when they say that facing another Big 3 player has often been the reason a given Big 3 member has not won a specific major title. That’s not incorrect.
However: It is often not a complete answer — that doesn’t make it wrong, only insufficient within a larger context.
When we use that phrasing — “another Big 3 player got in the way of a major title” — what is the underlying meaning and/or intent of using such an expression?
Most people in the room would quite accurately respond by saying, “that OTHER Big 3 player was in better form.” Yes, that gets to the heart of the matter.
In other words, the Big 3 player who gets in the way of another Big 3 player is the one who played objectively better.
A key inference to draw from that above point: A Big 3 player doesn’t really “get in the way” of the other’s ambitions if he or she wins a 50-50 match which was up for grabs. At the very least, the “getting in the way” phrasing doesn’t apply AS FULLY as it otherwise would have. It CAN still apply, but NOT to the same degree.
Let’s pick apart that point a little bit.
Did Djokovic get in the way of Rafa in the 2012 Australian Open? It is fair to say YES, but it is just as fair to say that it was not nearly at the level of 2019, seven years later. This, in 2019, was a case of Rafael Nadal running into a problem he couldn’t solve. Seven years ago, Nadal was up a break in the fifth set and had a chance to close down the match, but he missed that one passing shot, and Djokovic built a late rally on that miss. If ever there was a major-tournament final Rafa allowed to slip away, that and his 2007 Wimbledon final against Federer — when he committed one unforced error on a break point against Federer’s serve early in the fifth set — would rate as examples. Federer got in Rafa’s way to a certain degree, much as Djokovic did in 2012 in Melbourne, but 2019 was a much better and fuller example of Nadal’s dreams being curb-stomped by a vastly superior player.
My point should be clear by now, but I will restate it just to nail it down with absolute precision: There is a difference between losing a 50-50 match and getting crushed by a better player.
Playing a 50-50 match (2007 Wimbledon final, 2012 Australian Open final) will leave a player vulnerable to the frailty of having a match turn based on one mistake. Djokovic felt this cruelty in the 2013 Roland Garros semifinals, with Nadal benefiting from the dynamic instead of suffering from it. Yet, the reality of a 50-50 match means it was there for the athlete to take. To this extent, the tournament was much more winnable; it merely didn’t break the right way at the very end. That is somewhat unlucky, but the outcome was more within that athlete’s control.
On the other hand, there is something profoundly more unlucky for a player — in this case, Rafa — to steamroll through six matches and play top-quality tennis, only to have the exquisite misfortune of running into a terminator in the final and having no realistic hope of winning a major. Nadal played an A-level tournament, and yet it was clear midway through the first set of Sunday’s final that he had barely any chance of winning the championship.
That’s what has often defined this Big 3 era.
Djokovic played a tremendous 2010 U.S. Open and ran into the best hardcourt version of Nadal ever seen. (I place 2013 in a different category precisely because Djokovic had a real chance to win that 2013 final in New York, three years later.)
Federer played a tremendous 2015 U.S. Open and ran into elite-level Djokovic in the final.
These are the specific examples I am referencing in the Golden Era of men’s tennis: not merely the instances in which one Big 3 player has beaten another in a major final, but more precisely, when one Big 3 player has played a great six-match major tournament, only to run into an insoluble obstacle in the final.
That is what Rafa ran into this past Sunday. This is why the Golden Era is what it is… and has been… and might still continue to be later this year at Roland Garros, SW19, and Arthur Ashe Stadium.