Quest for 21st Major Title Remains Alive For Nadal

Rafael Nadal (photo: Australian Open video)

MELBOURNE/WASHINGTON, January 25, 2022 (by Michael Dickens)

Rafael Nadal battled his way to victory Tuesday afternoon at the Australian Open like he’s done 1,035 times previously in his storied career, with grit and fight – and plenty of determination, too.

Now, the World No. 5 from Spain finds himself just two victories away from winning a record-breaking 21stGrand Slam men’s singles title that would break the tie he shares with Roger Federer and Novak Djokovic. Each has won 20 majors.

At age 35, Nadal has become the fourth-oldest man to reach the Australian Open semifinals following his 6-3, 6-4, 4-6, 3-6, 6-3 quarterfinal win over Canada’s Denis Shapovalov in four hours and seven minutes on Rod Laver Arena.

“Honestly, [I] was completely destroyed after that,” Nadal told Jim Courier in his on-court interview after playing in his 14th Melbourne final eight match. “It was a tough day, very warm. I didn’t practice for it.

“I was a little bit lucky at the beginning of the fifth [set]. At the beginning of the match, I was playing great. I know how difficult it is to play against a player like Denis.”

On another hot and warm Melbourne afternoon, with temperatures reaching 32 degrees Celsius on the court, Nadal withstood an inspired comeback from the 14th seed Shapovalov, who was the last left-handed player to beat Nadal back in 2017. Since then, Nadal has won 22 straight against lefties.

At two sets all, Nadal broke Shapovalov in the second game of the final set to gain a crucial edge. It followed and preceded a couple of lengthy service holds by the Spaniard in which he saved a total of three break points.

Somehow, Nadal maintained both his mental and physical composure throughout despite the obstacles, which included stomach discomfort after the second set, while Shapovalov lost his temper – evidenced by his racquet smashing outburst. He was obviously frustrated in the heat of the battle. Meanwhile, Nadal stayed focused to close out the match. In the end, he delivered in the clutch when it mattered most. The victory improved Nadal’s career record in five-set matches to 23-13.

“I was lucky that I was serving great in the fifth,” Nadal continued in his on-court interview. “He was serving huge, and especially the second serve.

“For me it’s amazing, honestly, to be in the semifinals.”

Later in his press conference, Nadal explained: “For me, every game that I was winning with my serve was a victory. That was my goal and expect for a chance on the return.”

Earlier in the match, Nadal found himself on the defensive after Shapovalov complained to chair umpire Carlos Bernardes that the Spaniard benefited from favoritism with regards the length of time he was being given between points. In his usual polite tone of voice, Nadal rejected the claims by his younger, 22-year-old opponent. “I think he is wrong,” Nadal said.

Later, cooler heads prevailed but both Shapovalov and Nadal took time during their respective press conferences to share their thoughts about what happened. “It was nothing against Rafa,” Shapovalov said. “Rafa was serving, and I would expect the umpire to be looking at Rafa, and the umpire was staring me down. It didn’t make sense to me. …

“I respect everything that Rafa has done and I think he’s an unbelievable player,” Shapovalov continued. “But there’s got to be some boundaries, some rules set. It’s just so frustrating as a player. You feel like you’re not just playing against the player; you’re playing against the umpires; you’re playing against so much more. It’s difficult. I mean, it was a big break after the fourth set and for this reason the momentum just goes away.”

Shapovalov concluded: “They are legends of the game, but when you step on the court it should be equal.”

By the end of the match, Nadal had outpointed Shapovalov 148-135. He finished with 10 aces, 25 winners and 17 unforced errors, and won 79 percent (79 of 100) of his first-serve points. Shapovalov countered with 20 aces and 32 winners, but committed 44 unforced errors. Nadal broke the young Canadian three times in seven tries while Shapovalov was successful in converting just two of eight opportunities.

“When you lose a match like this, you are frustrated,” Nadal said of Shapovalov’s outburst. “I have a lot of affection for Denis. I think he’s a good guy with lots of talent, the talent to win multiple Grand Slams. In no way do I want to get in an argument with him. But I think he’s wrong. He’s young and when one is young, one makes mistakes.”

Berrettini’s power beats Monfils’ athleticism

On Friday, Nadal will face No. 7 seed Matteo Berrettini of Italy. The 25-year-old Rome native in his fifth Melbourne apperance became the first Italian to reach the Australian Open semifinals. He went the distance to beat No. 17 seed Gaël Monfils of France, 6-4, 6-4, 3-6, 3-6, 6-2, in three hours and 49 minutes. The match, which paired Berrettini’s power against Monfils’ athleticism, didn’t finish until 12:44 a.m. early Wednesday morning.

It was Berrettini’s second five-setter during the Melbourne fortnight following his third-round, five-set win over Carlos Alcaraz of Spain. He seemed no worse for wear but certainly was appreciative of what he achieved. The match included a near-20-minute service game by Berrettini, in which he survived 10 deuces to hold at 2-all.

Berrettini fired 12 aces and struck 51 winners to go with 50 unforced errors. He won 21 of 29 approaches to the net and outpointed Monfils 156-150. The Frenchman countered with 15 aces and 48 winners but also made 51 unforced errors.

“It feels unbelievable,” said Berrettini of his victory which lifted him into his third major semifinal. He continued his on-court interview by saying: “I am really happy for myself. What a great fight against Gaël. It was a great match with a lot of emotions. I thought I had him in the third set and then I found myself in the fifth. But I really fought hard and put everything on the court and that is why I am really happy.”

Barty reaches fourth Grand Slam and second AO semifinal

Top seed Ashleigh Barty is ranked No. 1 for a reason. She’s the best. On Tuesday evening, Barty continued to blaze a trail through the upper half of the women’s draw. She needed just 63 minutes to beat No. 21 seed Jessica Pegula, 6-2, 6-0, to reach her second Australian Open semifinal and fourth Grand Slam semifinal overall.

Through her first five matches – all straight-set wins, against Lesia Tsurenko, Lucia Bronzetti, Camila Giorgi, Amanda Anisimova and Pegula – Barty has logged just five hours and four minutes of court time. Her first two wins were completed in less than an hour. Her fourth-round match against Anisimova lasted the longest at 74 minutes.

Against Pegula, Barty hit six aces and 10 winners to 20 unforced errors. She won 81 percent (22 of 27) of her first-serve points and saved the only break point she faced, which came during the fourth game of the match. Barty outpointed her opponent 63-38. She is yet to drop a set in her five tournament wins.

“I’m just having fun, to be honest,” Barty said after improving to 9-0 this season. “I’m having fun trying to problem solve out on the court, and each and every opponent has been different. Each and every opponent has presented me with a different challenge and forced me to use another tool in my toolbox.

“I have been able to execute, which is sometimes important. You can have all the right ideas but you need to be able to do it under the pump. I’ve been able to that this week, which has been really exciting.”

Pegula had nothing but praise for Barty during her post-match remarks. She said: “Honestly, she just does everything, I think, a little bit better than everybody. She figured it out a little bit mentally and physically with her game where she has the confidence right now where she feels like she can go out there and chop anybody up when she’s playing really well.”

Keys back in AO semifinals for first time since 2015

Next, Barty will play No. 51 Madison Keys of the United States, whom she defeated 6-3, 7-5 in the French Open quarterfinals three years ago and leads in their career head-to-head 2-1.

On Tuesday, Keys beat World No. 4 and fourth seed Barbora Krejcikova of the Czech Republic, 6-3, 6-2, in 85 minutes, to reach her fifth Grand Slam semifinal. It was her 10th win in a row, longest of her career and improved her season win-loss record to 11-1. In an injury-riddled 2021, Keys amassed just 11 wins the entire season.

“I think I played a pretty solid match today,” Keys said in press. “Just so happy to be back in the semifinals here for the first time in a long time.”

Keys struck 11 aces and 27 winners to 21 unforced errors. She saved seven of eight break points she faced and broke Krejcikova four times in 12 tries. The Czech star countered with 12 winners and made 28 unforced errors. Keys outpointed her opponent 76-55.

The 26-year-old American is into last four in Melbourne for the first time since 2015. It’s her fifth Grand Slam semifinal overall and first since the 2018 US Open.

Tuesday’s Australian Open results

Wednesday’s Australian Open order of play

Around Melbourne Park

Molesworth and Harriman inducted into Australian Tennis Hall of Fame

Australian trailblazers Maude Margaret Molesworth and Joan Hartigan were inducted into the Australian Tennis Hall of Fame at a special ceremony at Rod Laver Arena Tuesday.

Immortalized in bronze, their statues will join the host of Australian tennis legends in Garden Square at Melbourne Park.

Both Molesworth and Hartigan were internationally regarded as two of the greatest players to compete before World War II. Both dominated on the national circuit and, as opportunities opened up for women, were recognized in both official and unofficial Top 10 rankings.

By the numbers

• Tuesday’s Day Nine attendance at Melbourne Park reached 22,281.

• Through her first five matches, Ashleigh Barty has spent a total of five hours and four minutes on court. Her fastest win came in 52 minutes in the second round against Lucia Bronzetti. Her longest match was an hour and 14 minutes in the fourth round versus Amanda Anisimova.

“Quotable …”

“I am super satisfied and feel very lucky person in general for all the things that happen to me in this life. I have a way to approach life. You can’t always be frustrated if the neighbor has a bigger house than you or a better phone or a better thing. I’m not going to be frustrated if Novak or Roger finishes the career with more Grand Slams than me. Let’s enjoy the situation that we did, every one of us, we did very special things in our sport. Let’s enjoy that.”

Rafael Nadal of Spain, who is tied with Roger Federer and Novak Djokovic for most career major singles titles with 20, during his post-match press conference Tuesday.