Rafael Nadal in the Australian Open final: For the love of tennis

Rafael Nadal gave many great stories in his nearly two-decade career as a tennis professional. But for him personally, the past four weeks in Melbourne have to be among the best of his successful career. On Friday, the 35-year-old Mallorkin reached the Australian Open final by 6:3, 6:2, 3:6, 6:3 against Matteo Berrettini. There he will meet Russian Daniil Medvedev on Sunday (9.30 am / Eurosport), who won 7:6 (7:5), 4:6, 6:4, 6:1 against Stefanos Tsitsipas of Greece in the second semi-final.

“There were moments when I wasn’t sure I could come back on the Tour. But now I am here,” Nadal said after his victory which he himself did not think was possible at the beginning of the year. After months of foot problems, Nadal also contracted coronavirus in his return tournament In Abu Dhabi at the end of December.Despite being vaccinated, he lay in bed for four days and then “physically destroyed”, as he himself said at the start of the Australian Open.

There he was not initially considered one of the best candidates, although he had previously won a preparatory tournament in Melbourne. But doubts remain. Does the foot hold up? Is there another setback? “I’ve been through a lot of difficult moments – many days of hard work without seeing a light,” he said. Sometimes he wasn’t able to train at all, sometimes 20 or 45 minutes. During this time, discussions with his team and family also revolved around whether he should stop playing tennis.

Many others may have done it due to his long track record and advanced age, but Nadal is driven by a very special drive. It’s not about winning a 21st Grand Slam title at any cost – it could be exciting for the sport or the history books. For him, it’s about something else instead: “For me, it’s very important to ever play tennis again. Because that’s what I like to do,” Nadal said.

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Indeed, Nadal – like his great rival Roger Federer – is distinguished by this special love for the game. It seems almost paradoxical in a sport where some of the heroes of the past couldn’t escape the circus fast enough. Björn Borg found tennis so much at one point that Andre Agassi even hated it at times and Boris Becker was a physical wreck towards the end of his career.

Now the fact of Nadal’s Australian prodigy includes the fact that he took advantage of the fact that Novak Djokovic knocked himself out of the tournament in advance by refusing to vaccinate. That Alexander Zverev couldn’t keep up at the turn of the year and that Nadal was also a bit lucky in Melbourne. After his grueling quarter-final match against conqueror Zverev Denis Shapovalov, in which Nadal had stomach problems, he was allowed to recover for two days. Friday’s semi-final matches were played not outdoors in the late afternoon in the 35-degree sun, but because of rain at the nicely air-conditioned Rod Laver Arena.

Nadal did not know if he would return to the tour

However, there are few who did not allow Nadal to reach the final. Especially in Australia, where he won the title spectacularly in Melbourne in 2009, but then lost four more finals – and suffered as many defeats as the other 24 finals combined. In 2012 he led in a marathon duel with Novak Djokovic 4: 2 in the fifth round, in 2017 against Roger Federer also in the deciding set 3: 1. And in 2014, a back injury prevented him from facing Stan Wawrinka. Only in 2019 did he not have a chance again against Djokovic – it was the only major final in which he could not win a set.

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Now Nadal is knocking again and could become only the fourth male player to win all four Grand Slams at least twice. “If very few have done it, it shows how difficult it is,” Nadal said subtly. With determination and passion, he once again put himself in a position to do just that. There is also a great deal of humility, because that is what distinguishes Rafael Nadal. Unlike Novak Djokovic, he doesn’t take himself too seriously.

And so he considered what he had to go through in the past few months on Friday. “Compared to what others have been through these times, my feet haven’t been a bit tough,” he said, adding, “I’m fine, I can’t complain.” Because – and everyone knows Rafael Nadal should be ranked – he is merely tennis player. However, he is one of the greatest in the history of his sport.

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