For the 225th time in his glorious career, Rafael Nadal grabbed a two-set lead in a Grand Slam match. Only for the second time did he blow that big edge and lose.
Several uncharacteristically careless directing and framed backhands in a third-series tiebreaker began Nadal’s cancellation and his bid for the record-breaking 21st Men’s Championship eventually ended in the quarterfinals of the Australian Open on Wednesday, 3-6, 2-6, – 6 (4), 6-4, 7-5 loss to Stefanos Tsitsipas.
In his best place at the start, Nadal went on quite easily, earning 27 consecutive points on his serve in one section and running his series of consecutive sets won in major tournaments to 35, a shy of Roger Federer’s professional-era record.
Nadal and Federer are currently tied for 20 Grand Slam singles titles, more than any other man in tennis history.
But Tsitsipas never hesitated, and that surprisingly bad tiebreak from 34-year-old Nadal – thinking too far ahead, perhaps? – helped pass the third set and begin the epic comeback.
The only other case in which Nadal went from a two-sided front to a helmet defeat was at the 2015 US Open against Fabio Fognini (who lost to Nadal in the fourth round in Melbourne Park this year).
So instead of Nadal trying to continue his pursuit of Federer, it will be Tsitsipas – a 22-year-old from Greece with a brilliant game – who will meet US Open 2019 runner-up Daniil Medvedev in the semifinals on Friday.
Neither Tsitsipas nor Medvedev have won a Grand Slam tournament.
In the men’s semifinals, 17-time main champion and No. 1 Novak Djokovic will face 114th-ranked Aslan Karatsev, who made his Grand Slam debut.
The women’s semifinals on Thursday (Wednesday night EST) are Serena Williams vs. Naomi Osaka and Jennifer Brady vs. Carolina Muchova.
Nadal entered this year’s first major with doubts about his back, citing a reason to withdraw from the ATP Cup pre-Australian Open and said his problem had prevented him from training properly for about three weeks.
But he hadn’t lost a set in Melbourne Park in four games; he won all 21 sets he played at last year’s French Open, where he took his 20th trophy with a helmet to draw even with Federer (Williams has 23, Margaret Court 24).
Federer has not competed for more than a year after two knee surgeries.
With croaking seagulls providing a strange night soundtrack at Rod Laver Arena – but without spectators as they were banned during the local lock on COVID-19 and will return by Thursday – Nadal has always had an answer to everything Tsitsipas has tried in the beginning.
Hurrying up the web? Here comes a shot at an angle. Going to baseline? Good luck trying to get Nadal out.
It seemed that their semifinal in 2019 in Australia could be repeated, when Nadal defeated Tsitsipas and allowed him to win only six matches.
But this time, Tsitsipas came in after three days off, as the man he had to face in the fourth round, number 9 Mateo Beretini, withdrew with a stomach injury.
This – and a 12-year age difference – may have contributed to Tsitsipas being fresher at the end of the game after playing after four hours. Tsitsipas, who has been a star for years, almost pulled off that kind of shock against Djokovic in the semifinals of the French Open in October, going from two sets to a fifth.
Tsitsipas could not sign the deal then.
He did against Nadal.
Tsitsipas moved to the front at 6-5 in the fifth, breaking the love while Nadal threw a series of shots, then served the victory, transforming his third match point with a backhand winner.