History will be made on Sunday in the Australian Open final. But will it be because Rafael Nadal claimed a record-breaking 21st Grand Slam title or because Daniil Medvedev became the first man in the Open Era to earn his second major crown at the next Slam following his first?
Entering the tournament, both men downplayed their chances. Nadal had only played five matches since Roland Garros last year due to a left foot injury. The 35-year-old was clear he had to “accept that things [are] not going to be perfect”.
“I came here just with the clear goal to be back on the Tour,” Nadal said before the event. “That’s the most important thing. Then if I am able to win matches, be improving every single day, fantastic.”
The sixth seed was right. His tournament has not been perfect. This has not been like many of his Roland Garros runs, in which the lefty steamrolled the field en route to the trophy. But one thing no injury can take away from Nadal is his determination, and that has been on full display throughout the fortnight.
In the quarter-finals against Denis Shapovalov, Nadal let slip a two-set lead and admitted to dealing with a stomach issue in the brutal Melbourne heat. But as he has often done throughout his career, the 89-time tour-level titlist relied on his unparalleled fighting spirit and found a way to win.
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Then in the semi-finals, when big-hitting Italian Matteo Berrettini appeared to have seized the momentum and turned their match around, Nadal once again battled through, triumphing in four sets to reach his sixth Australian Open final. The emotion on his face after match point as he smiled towards his box said it all.
“I went through a lot of challenging moments, a lot of days of hard work without seeing a light there,” Nadal said. “But [I was] still working and still receiving plenty of support from my team and from my family, too, without a doubt.”
Nadal is now three sets away from breaking his tie with Novak Djokovic and Roger Federer for the most men’s singles Grand Slam titles in history. The Spaniard can also become the fourth man in history to claim multiple crowns at all four majors. But earlier in the week, he was clear that his future happiness will not depend on finishing with more Slams than his great rivals.
“No, I am super satisfied and feel [I am a] very lucky person in general for all the things that happened to me in this life,” Nadal said. “I have a way to approach life. You can’t be always frustrated if the other, if the neighbour 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 their career with more Grand Slams than me.”
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Medvedev would be happy to halt Nadal’s historic pursuit. But the second-seeded Russian said he is not focussed on that.
“It’s not me going for the 21st, not me trying to break these records. I’m going for my second one. I’m still far from all these things,” Medvedev said. “I’m just trying to focus on myself, doing my job. Of course, I’m not lying, I know what’s happening, I know what Rafa is going for, I knew what Novak was going for. I’m not gonna say, ‘Oh, yeah, I am trying not to listen about this.’ But it’s kind of their thing, not mine. I’m just there to try to win the final.”
Last September, Medvedev stopped Djokovic’s chase of the Grand Slam — winning all four majors in a single season — with a dominant display in the US Open final. Will he play spoiler again, but this time at Melbourne Park?
Entering the tournament, the Russian star was one of the leading favourites if not the favourite as the highest-ranked player in the field and the most recent Grand Slam champion. But like Nadal, he attempted to shift the pressure off himself.
“I always say whoever is the highest ranked is the favourite,” Medvedev told Eurosport. “So this time I will go with Rafa because he has 20 Grand Slams.”
Both men have earned their spot in the championship clash, which is a rematch of the 2019 US Open final. On that occasion, Nadal sprinted to a two-set lead with a break in the third set before Medvedev found his footing in his first major final and forced a fifth set. The Spaniard clawed his way to a grueling four-hour, 51-minute victory.
“[I] have to give myself credit. I hope I grew a lot doing these things,” Medvedev said at the time. “But I need to continue and I need to be better.”
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The Russian has done just that. The 2020 Nitto ATP Finals champion has no clear weaknesses. At 6’6”, the 25-year-old often powers through service games at lightning speed before drowning opponents during his return games with jaw-dropping movement and defence. His strokes might look unconventional, but the results are unquestionable.
Perhaps most importantly, Medvedev has developed a champion’s knack for raising his level when it matters most. Felix Auger-Aliassime played sensational tennis in the quarter-finals to take a two-set lead against him before the World No. 2 raised his game to rally for a spot in the last four, where he ousted rival Stefanos Tsitsipas in four sets.
Medvedev thrives in the big moments. This is his fourth major final, and they have all come against legendary opponents, with two against Djokovic and this the second against Nadal.
“It’s really tough to get into the final, and I always have them there waiting for me. But it’s fun,” Medvedev said. “When I was like eight, ten years old I was playing against the wall and I was imagining that it’s Rafa on the other side, or Roger. Novak was still not yet there…
“Now I have the chance to play [Rafa for the] second time. First one was a close one, epic one. I’m gonna try to prepare well, and need to show my best, because that’s what I took of the three finals that I had before, that you have to do better than 100 per cent in order to win.”
Nadal will throw everything but the Yarra River at Medvedev on Sunday. The sixth seed will launch forehand rockets, try to sneak forward if Medvedev stays far behind the baseline like he did at points in Flushing Meadows in 2019. But will it be enough?
Rather than worrying about the result, the Spaniard plans to enjoy the moment.
“Winning, it’s special, yes, but winning without all the work that you have behind of course is not the same,” Nadal said. “If the things are easy, [they] don’t have the same value. In my case, I think I have been able to enjoy it probably more than the other, because for a lot of times I was close to not being able to do it again.”
Did You Know?
Nadal leads the pair’s ATP Head2Head series 3-1, but Medvedev won their most recent clash at the 2020 Nitto ATP Finals.