Cape Town - The last time Rafa Nadal won the Australian Open was in 2009 when he beat Roger Federer and reduced the Swiss master to tears at the postmatch ceremony.
Federer would exact revenge when beating Nadal in five sets in 2017.
The duo’s Grand Slam and career rivalry is among the greatest to grace the game. Both have won 20 men’s singles Grand Slam titles, with Nadal rated the best to ever play on clay and Federer the best to ever play on grass.
The Australian Open is hard-court stuff and of Nadal’s 20 grand slam titles, just one has come in Melbourne.
But this doesn’t mean Nadal doesn’t play well at the Australian Open. To the contrary, the Spaniard will be playing in his sixth final, having lost four of the last five. There is also context to the defeats, with a five-set six-hour thriller going the way of world number one Novak Djokovic and also the five-set defeat to Federer. Both matches could have been title-winning ones for Nadal.
Two years ago, on these very pages, I wrote the following of Nadal, Federer and Djokovic:
“All three have won on grass, clay and the hard courts of the Australian and US Open.”
Federer, with 20 Grand Slams, is generally described as the best. The iconic Rod Laver only this week said that for him it was Federer and then the rest. Djokovic, capable of playing for another three to five years, should surpass Federer’s 20 Grand Slam victories and has a huge support base for being considered the best.
But I have always been mystified of the fight it has always been for Nadal to be spoken of with the same reverence of Federer and Djokovic.
Everything about Nadal’s career speaks to him being able to claim the “best of his generation” title.
And everything about his attitude, his humility, his grace, his refusal to quit and his skill, speaks to greatness.
Nadal has won 20 Grand Slam titles and all his numbers echo the returns of Federer and Djokovic.
Federer and Djokovic are often described as poets, whereas there has never been anything subtle or seemingly beautiful about Nadal’s predatory instincts. If the former two are symphonies, then Nadal has always been heavy metal.
But I like heavy metal – and Nadal has had to be at his loudest to even be at the 2022 Australian Open, let alone in the final and competing for a record overall 21st Grand Slam title.
He has battled a foot injury for the past year, in December tested positive for Covid and he had hardly played a competitive match in the month leading into the Australian Open.
Yet there Nadal was, in the quarter-final and semi-final, running with the enthusiasm of an 18-year-old, showing every trick of his trade that has come with nearly 20 years of experience on the circuit and fighting for every point, with the hunger of one who had never won a Grand Slam match, let alone a tournament.
Federer will always have a soft spot in my heart because I just loved watching him play. Djokovic is a genius on all surfaces, but there is just something about Nadal’s attitude that is magnetic.
Everyone likes him and everyone wants him to succeed.
Nadal has 13 French Open titles, but for me his finest victory was his 2008 Wimbledon triumph over Federer. Nadal, who had always battled on grass, beat the best there has ever been on grass 6-4, 6-4, 6-7 (5), 6-7 (8), 9-7.
It was an epic final that was made even more memorable because of who Nadal was playing.
Statistically, 1.5 percent separates Federer, Djokovic and Nadal’s careers and with 20 Grand Slam men’s singles titles, nothing separates them.
Victory against Daniil Medvedev today will, at least for a few months, give Nadal the statistical edge over the other two, and with the French Open next, 21 could very easily become 22.
Earlier this year, one of my five sporting wishes of 2022, was for Nadal to win the Australian Open.
Equally, one was for Proteas captain Temba Bavuma to score more international 100s. Bavuma did that mid-January and Nadal could cash in my second wish before the end of January.
Nadal said being in the final was a present, as he didn’t even think he was going to make it to the first round.
But to believe Nadal is content with making it to a final is to ignore Nadal’s career. He doesn’t play to make finals; he plays to win finals.