AO 2022: A 21st for Rafa or a second for Daniil?

Medvedev out stop Nadal from breaking the men's all-time Grand Slam record.

Rafael Nadal / Open d'Australie 2022©Corinne Dubreuil / FFT
 - Reem Abulleil

On Friday on Rod Laver Arena, an emotional Rafael Nadal hunched over his bench, stuck his face in his racquet bag, and burst into tears as he realised he had just punched his ticket to the Australian Open final.

At 35 years of age, with 20 Grand Slams in his trophy cabinet, 29 major finals reached – six of them at the Australian Open – Nadal can still break down on a tennis court, in the process conveying just how much the sport still means to him.

A couple of months ago, he was contemplating retirement after a chronic foot injury that flared up in 2020 continued to bother him. The Spaniard, who played just one tournament post-Wimbledon last year, dipped his toes back into competition at an exhibition in Abu Dhabi in December, but then contracted Covid-19 and had to isolate.

He made the trip to Australia hoping his foot would cooperate, and knowing that “you miss 100 percent of the shots you don’t take” – a famous quote from ice hockey great Wayne Gretzky that rang very true this fortnight Down Under.

Nadal took the shot and it earned him a title in the ATP 250 event in Melbourne earlier this month, and now a place in the Australian Open final, with a chance to break the men’s all-time Grand Slam record he currently shares with Roger Federer and Novak Djokovic.

“I went through a lot of challenging moments, a lot of days of hard work without seeing a light there. But still working and still receiving plenty of support from my team and from my family, too,” said Nadal following his four-set semi-final win over Matteo Berrettini on Friday.

“A lot of conversations with the team, with the family about what can happen or what gonna happen if the things continue like this, thinking that maybe is a chance to say good-bye.

“That was not a lot of months ago. To be able to be where I am today, I don't know, I really can't explain in words how important is for me in terms of energy, in terms of personal satisfaction, in terms of being very thankful for all the support that I received from the fans and especially from the people really close to me.”

Medvedev on a mission

Standing in the way between Nadal and a historic 21st major crown is world No.2 and reigning US Open champion Daniil Medvedev, who is bidding to become the first man in the Open Era to win a second Grand Slam at the very next Grand Slam event after winning his first major.

This is the second consecutive Slam final where Medvedev finds himself in the position to stop one of tennis’ ‘Big Three’ from claiming a record 21st major.

Nadal, Djokovic and Federer are all tied at the top of the leaderboard with 20 each and Medvedev is the reason it stayed that way after last September’s US Open, where he defeated Djokovic in the final.

Daniil Medvedev, Australian Open 2022 semi-finals© Corinne Dubreuil/FFT

“I think it's great rivalry between them,” said Medvedev following his four-set victory over Stefanos Tsitsipas in the semis on Friday.

“I mean, same about Roger and Rafa, they got many times injured lately. I'm not even talking about last year, but even before. And all the time we start to hear a little bit, ‘It's over, not sure they gonna come back’.

“Well, look at Rafa. He's there on Sunday, and was the same with Roger when he came back after the knee problems, what is it, four years ago, something, when he started winning everything.

“So it's a great rivalry. I'm happy to have the chance to try to stop one more time somebody from making history. But again, just need to show my best tennis for this.”

'My competitive spirit is in my DNA'

Nadal leads his head-to-head against Medvedev 3-1, and won their sole previous appearance at a major, in the US Open final in 2019.

For Nadal, having the opportunity to be back on a tennis court, competing at the highest level, far outweighs the prospect of making history.

“Of course my goal now is to win,” said the 2009 Australian Open champion.

“For me, it's a present, just be here and play tennis, no? I am taking now the things a little bit in a different way.

Rafael Nadal, Australian Open 2022 semi-finals© Corinne Dubreuil/FFT

“Of course always with competitive spirit that I have, because I can't go against that. It's my personal DNA. But in some way, just be what I am and be able to have the chance to compete at this level, it's a positive energy for me to keep going, because at the end of the day, and being very honest, for me is much more important to have the chance to play tennis than win the 21, no?

“Because that makes me more happy in terms of general life, to be able to do the thing that I like to do more than achieving another Grand Slam.

“At the end of the day, the life, it's about happiness.”

Daniil Medvedev, Australian Open 2022 semi-finals© Corinne Dubreuil/FFT

An emotional ride

Medvedev’s Australian Open so far has been an emotional roller coaster. The 25-year-old Russian, who is through to a fourth Grand Slam final, has lost his cool more than once during his matches, and had to a save a match point in the quarter-finals against Felix Auger-Aliassime before advancing.

“It's been definitely emotional,” he admits. “It started with the match with Nick (Kyrgios in the second round), which is just emotional in all the aspects that we can call it.

“I think it started there, and this energy kept on going with different ones in every match, you know. Some match got mad with something, the Felix match was just crazy in terms of tennis and the score. Today was, I mean, our matches with Stefanos are always emotional.

“Yeah, it's been a great run, and I'm happy that I have the chance for the title on Sunday.”

Rafael Nadal and Daniil Medvedev at the net at the 2019 US Open©Corinne Dubreuil/FFT

Key stats

  • Victory for Nadal on Sunday would see him become just the fourth man in history to win each of the four Grand Slams at least twice.
  • Medvedev has entered Rotterdam, which takes place in the week commencing February 7. He will become world No.1 on Monday February 14 IF he wins the titles at both the Australian Open and Rotterdam AND Djokovic does not compete at a tournament in the 2 weeks following the Australian Open.
  • If Medvedev does not compete at Rotterdam (or any other tournament in the next three weeks), he will become world No.1 on Monday February 21 IF he wins the title on Sunday AND neither he nor Djokovic compete at a tournament in the three weeks following the Australian Open.
  • Medvedev is bidding to become only the sixth man in the Open Era to win the Australian Open after winning the US Open in the previous season.
Rafael Nadal, Australian Open 2022 semi-finals© Corinne Dubreuil/FFT
  • Medvedev is bidding to become the fifth man in the Open Era to win the Australian Open title from match point down. The time this has happened was in 2005 when Marat saved match point against Roger Federer in the semi-finals before defeating Lleyton Hewitt in the final.
  • Nadal is bidding to end a four-match losing streak against top-five players on hard courts.
  • Medvedev has hit 94 aces through six matches this Australian Open compared to Nadal’s 42.
  • The pair have spent a comparable amount of time on court this fortnight, with Medvedev competing for 17 hours 29 minutes and Nadal 17 hours four minutes.
  • Nadal has won 95 of his 100 service games this tournament compared to Medvedev winning 111 out of 118 service games.
  • Nadal has won 27 percent of his return games compared to Medvedev’s 19 percent.