“The real true is that two months ago we didn’t know if we will be able to be back on tour at all so…here I am. For me it’s just a present of life that I am here playing tennis again and I just enjoy.”
Those were Rafael Nadal’s words in his Australian Open on-court, post-match interview after he defeated Denis Shapovalov 6-3, 6-4, 4-6, 3-6, 6-3 in Tuesday’s quarter-finals in a match that Aussies might describe as “a ripper of a stoush” – ‘stoush’ meaning a fight or brawl.
Understandably, Shapovalov will not be too partial to Nadal’s side of an emotional victory that comes after months on uncertainly due to a chronic, congenital condition in his left foot related to a small bone deformation, as well as a case of COVID-19 he contracted after an exhibition event in Abu Dhabi last month.
Nadal’s 74th career win at Melbourne Park seemed anything but probable when he had a stomach issue that required a courtside check (and taking tablets) with tournament medical staff during a change-over midway through the fourth set, and then an off-court ‘toilet break’ at the end of it. (He later said his problem was exacerbated by the fatigue he felt with temperatures soaring over 30 degrees and his lack of tournament competition in recent months.)
At that stage, Shapovalov was in fifth gear and rolling against an opponent who was low energy and not moving full-out in all the rallies.
After a nearly seven-minute break, play resumed in the final set and Nadal saved a break point and pulled out the opening game with a lunging, backhand, stab volley that had the partisan Rod Laver Arena crowd aroused and cheering loudly for him.
But that Nadal would be fit enough to complete a comeback, looking as he did to be suffering to some extent after each rally, was still seriously in doubt.
At that point, an unsettled Shapovalov lost his serve to 15 – gifting the game to Nadal with two forehand unforced errors, a double fault and a backhand unforced error on game point.
Trailing 2-0, in the next game Shapovalov had two break points to reverse his fortunes – and probably make a labouring Nadal feel a lot worse than he was already was – but he committed backhand errors on both of them.
With 3-0 separation, Nadal then dropped only four points in his final three service games – ending the passion-filled, four-hour and eight-minute drama when Shapovalov missed wide with a backhand volley on the first match point.
Nadal’s serving stats were not that exceptional in the last set – 68 per cent of first serves made, 79 per cent of first-serve points won and 46 per cent of second-serve points won – but combined with help from a wavering Shapovalov, it was enough to get to him over the finish line.
An exasperated Shapovalov, possibly thinking of chances he missed in the first set of last year’s Wimbledon semi-final against another all-time great, Novak Djokovic, smashed his racquet in frustration after the final point.
“I was a little bit lucky at the beginning of the fifth,” Nadal said. “At the beginning of the match, I was playing great. Then I know how difficult it is to play against a player like Denis, he’s very talented, very aggressive. He was serving huge, and especially the second serve. I think I had my chances at the beginning of the third with love-30 and then one 15-30 – a passing shot down-the-line (and) I didn’t get it. Then I started to feel a little bit more tired and then he pushed me.”
Shapovalov’s assessment of the result was raw and heartfelt. “It just sucks to lose that one. I definitely felt like I had it on my racquet. The third, fourth and fifth set, I felt like I was the better player. I had more chances – it’s just one bad game for me. It definitely sucks – (but) a good tournament for me overall.”
Nadal came out of the gate fast, breaking to love in the fourth game of the match and riding the momentum to a two-sets to love lead – all the while facing no break points.
“It for sure was nerves, I didn’t feel comfortable,” Shapovalov admitted about his tentative play in the early going. “It was my first match in a while on Rod Laver, so he was definitely more comfortable out there. I just had to get into the match. I wasn’t serving great, was struggling with the returns so the rhythm was off. I’m happy with the way I was able to fight and come back. I definitely found my game late in the third and in the fourth. Sometimes it’s good in the (best-of-five sets) Grand Slams to have opportunities to try to find your game.”
As for whether he was aware of what was happening on at the other side of the net with Nadal’s fitness issue, Shapovalov said, “I don’t think he was struggling physically. Obviously he called the trainer for some painkillers and this and that. But in my mind, if he’s on court, I’m not focusing on whatever it is. I have aches and tears as well. I haven’t been 100 per cent the whole tournament, so I don’t think it’s something that I paid any attention to.”
Much of Shapovalov’s post-match media conference was spent with journalists asking about a dispute he had with umpire Carlos Bernardes about how much time Nadal was taking when he was serving, as well as right before the second set began. It included him saying to the Brazilian, “you guys are all corrupt.” Later Shapovalov would apologize for those words saying he misspoke but he stood by his view that Nadal was constantly pushing the serve clock to its 25-second limit, as well saying that he thought the Spaniard’s off-court, extended break at the end of the fourth set for both a medical assessment and a toilet break was wrong and disruptive.
He and Nadal had a brief meeting at the net after his initial discussion with Bernardes, with Nadal tapping him gently on the arm and Shapovalov later explaining, “he was just confused. He just asked me what happened and there was no problem.”
Asked if he thought Nadal received preferential treatment, Shapovalov expressed a view that’s likely shared by a not insignificant number of his fellow professionals. “Of course, one hundred per cent he does. Every other match that I’ve played, the pace has been so quick because the refs have been on the clock after every single point. And this one, after the first two sets, it was like an hour and a half just because it dragged out so much after every single point. I mean he’s given so much time, and (also) in between sets.”
Elaborating on the treatment Nadal, and by extension others of the sport’s elite stars such as Roger Federer and Djokovic, are afforded, Shapovalov said, “I’m not trying to take away anything from what they’ve done. They’re great champions, they’re the legends of the game. But at the end of the day when you step on the court, it should be equal for everyone.”
Nadal would later disagree, insisting, “it’s always in the mind that the top players get bigger advantages, no? – and honestly on court is not true, no? That’s my feeling. I never feel that I had advantages on court, and I really believe that he’s wrong in that case, no?”
Showing sympathy after an exhausting, sometimes contentious match, Nadal commented about Shapovalov, “I honestly feel sorry for him. I think he played a great match for a long time. Of course it’s tough to accept to lose a match like this, especially after I was feeling destroyed, and probably he felt that. And then I was able to manage to win the match, no?
“I wish him all the very best. He’s young, and I think we all make mistakes in our careers.” So the fifth Australian Open of the 22-year-old Shapovalov’s career ends with his best result so far – a quarter-final – but also with a sense he will be thinking that it could have been so much more.
Félix Auger-Aliassime faces the best the 2022 Aussie Open has to offer when he plays reigning US Open champion Daniil Medvedev in Rod Laver Arena at 7:30 p.m. on Wednesday (3:30 a.m. ET in Canada).
Being back in Rod Laver Arena will please the 25-year-old Russian who, as the second and top-seeded player in the tournament, did not hide his displeasure at being assigned to adjacent Margaret Court Arena for his last two matches against Botic van de Zandschulp and Maxime Cressy.
Auger-Aliassime will make his career debut in Rod Laver after expressing how much he enjoyed playing his two previous rounds – Dan Evans and Marin Cilic – in the austere, asymmetrical John Cain Arena (which doubles as a velodrome).
As a result of Wednesday’s order of play, the only Grand Slam centre court that Auger-Aliassime will not have played in is Court Philippe Chatrier at Roland Garros.
“Tough match,” Medvedev said looking ahead to taking on Auger-Aliassime for the third time in five months following his straight-sets victories in the 2021 US Open semi-finals and at the ATP Cup two weeks ago. “Last two I managed to have the edge on him. But he’s a phenomenal player, so I will need to be at my best to try to win.”
Feature Photo: Martin Sidorjak