This will not be a long story, because Rafael Nadal’s win over Stefanos Tsitsipas in the Australian Open semifinals was mercifully brief. Nevertheless, this story — while not owning much length — is still potent.
Nadal is standing on the other side of time as he prepares for Sunday’s final against an as-yet-unknown opponent.
Ask any Nadal fan about the 2017 Australian Open final, and one topic always comes up: Rafa had one less day of rest than Roger Federer, due to the tournament’s still-existing policy of splitting the men’s semifinals into separate days, Thursday and Friday. Federer had the Thursday semifinal in 2017, Nadal the Friday one.
I am a neutral party as a professional writer. I can’t look at that 2017 final — and the reality that Federer requested a medical timeout late in his semifinal win over Stan Wawrinka — and conclude that Federer would have won if he had played the Friday semifinal and Nadal had played the Thursday semifinal.
To be more specific, the difference wasn’t necessarily that Nadal played on Friday. The other three majors play their men’s semifinals on Friday and their final on Sunday. The true difference — something which could and did exist only at the Australian Open — was that Federer played on Thursday, giving him the extra 24 hours for his body to recover. That was the true key. It’s not that Rafa lacked sufficient rest; it’s that Federer gained extra recuperation time.
It wasn’t the only reason Federer won that match; he was the better player in the fifth set and in crunch-time moments. Yet, recovery time was certainly one of a handful of central reasons for that outcome.
Now, though, two years later, Nadal got the Thursday semifinal, and he moved swiftly through Tsitsipas like a knife through warm butter. Now Nadal gets the benefit of added time off to recharge and refocus. Now Nadal is in position to store up reserves of energy. He needed to play an efficient six rounds to get to the final and put himself in a place where he could go all-out.
Now, if he does want to play a more patient style of tennis, he can… and not pay too huge a price. Yes, a more attack-first style has suited him well, but he has played highly manageable opponents. This final could be much tougher, in which case Nadal might have to go into “hit an extra ball” mode.
He can certainly do that, to offer the understatement of the century. He will obviously need to balance aggression with patience.
The key point, though, is that with Thursday — and not Friday — being his entry point into the final, and with his semifinal lasting roughly three hours shorter than his 2017 semifinal against Dimitrov, Nadal has a lot more time on his side.
He and his fans can wait the extra 24 hours… but they can’t wait to see if the Spaniard will bag major title No. 18 Down Under.