Almost 500 days later, 474 to be exact, Rafael Nadal will once again play in the final of a Grand Slam. After the crush suffered against Denis Shapovalov three days ago, the champion of 20 majors quickly got the duel with Matteo Berrettini on track and placated a final rush by the Italian to reach his sixth final in Australia, the 29th on a great stage: 6-3, 6-2, 3-6 and 6-3, in 2h 55m. The 35-year-old king of the land reached 500 hard court wins and came within a single step of breaking the all-time tie at 20 majors with the Swiss Roger Federer and the Serbian Novak Djokovic. To achieve this, so close and so far, he must defeat the winner of the other semifinal, starring the Russian Daniil Medvedev and the Greek Stefanos Tsitsipas, in the final on Sunday (9.30, Eurosport).
“This means a lot to me. I am having fun again and feeling alive”, he expressed on his way back to the final chapter in Melbourne, where he triumphed in 2009 –in that episode that caused Federer to cry helplessly– and was on the brink of success four times: 2012 (Djokovic ), 2014 (Wawrinka), 2017 (Federer) and 2019 (Nole). The current number five will do it, 35 years and 241 days, with the fourth veteran record in the great ocean after those of Ken Rosewall (37 and 62 in 1972), Mal Anderson (37 and 306 that same year) and Federer (36 and 173 in 2018).
Nadal had played day and night, but not yet indoors. Point shots over Melbourne, closed cover and, a priori, an unwelcome preamble for the Balearic Islands, since under this format the ball weighs more and stings less. That is to say, in those circumstances the serve and the flat forehand of the Italian could do even more damage. In any case, the Spaniard had it crystal clear: objective, pulverize Berrettini’s backhand, the Roman’s weak point. Number seven was not there nor did Nadal leave him, as if he had set the alarm clock late. He entered the match cold and stiff, and the consequence was lethal, because in the blink of an eye the Spaniard had already broken his serve and had won the first set.
Replacement of the physical attack he suffered in the quarters, when he suffered a heat stroke against Denis Shapovalov, he moved briskly, fresh in his legs and from there he began to connect one blow after another in the direction of the rival’s back, without hesitation. One after another, like a kalashnikov. Erre que erre, punishing the deficit and greasing the drive. She took over the dance floor, exercised and percussed. At the close of the first round, Berrettini had already made 14 unforced errors and made too much of a gesture. The Italian gave off the feeling of having gone out on the track defeated in advance, overwhelmed by doubts, without tools to counteract and extremely fragile in the rallies. Nadal, good hound, sniffed those hesitations and ate it up.
As he advances rounds and sees success, the Spaniard tends to resize himself. From less to more in the tournament, more and more recognizable and having passed the agonizing test of the previous season, he multiplied his performance against an opponent who, despite having settled in the noble zone of the circuit, still competes several rungs below more competitive alternatives. consistent as those of Medvedev or Alexander Zverev, even the Greek Tsitsipas. He impresses his punch, but the defect of the backhand is accentuated when from the other side a twisted ball is proposed like that of Nadal, who started the second set with another break –two bites in the first two options of the duel– and he enjoyed generating effects and building the points.
A consummate strategist, he widened the court and opened angles with his forehand and backhand, TIC Tac, cornering Berrettini and preventing him from re-engaging with his master stroke. Leaning, forced and anguished, misplaced, the Roman snorted and looked at infinity, the balls fell before serving. Too much anxiety inside that head. The stage was too comfortable for the Mallorcan, who in another jiffy had already raised a 4-0 and sealed the second set categorically. At that moment, Berrettini’s failure counter registered 24, while Nadal’s marked a trifle: 7. Not once had the man from Manacor opened the door, at that point. Not a single second of respite did the rival have.
Once the adaptation period has been overcome (Marcos Giron (66th) and Yannick Hanfmann (126th), with good marks the subsequent slopes (Karen Khachanov (30th) and Adrian Mannarino (69th) and also the unevenness suffered (Denis Shapovalov (14th) that preceded the final ramps, Nadal finished calibrating himself on the penultimate ascent, and he did so, of course, with the patina of emotion that defines his career.
Apparently delivered, Berrettini – 25 years old and a finalist last year at Wimbledon – turned around in the final stretch. The first top-10 with which the Spaniard ran into since June stopped the bleeding, recomposed himself and counterattacked. He did it, yes, when he already knew he was lost. The insurgency was short-lived. He scratched a set, but just as he got up he fell apart. More fireworks than anything else. ephemeral rebellion. After linking four loveless innings, he saved a break option in game eight, resisting a superb 23-shot exchange, but then slipped again and conceded the final break. In the end, a setback to the net ended his journey.
Feeling the ball, going deep into the parallels and with no sign of discomfort in the battered left foot, tactically perfect, Nadal kept it at bay. The manacorí, champion in 2009, tasted the crossing and entered his sixth Australian final exhibiting himself, sending the message that he is already there, ready, with his finger on the trigger and with competitive biorhythms definitely at their due level.
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George Holan is chief editor at Plainsmen Post and has articles published in many notable publications in the last decade.