Roger Federer’s part in tennis history will remain intact – at least for the next few months – with Rafael Nadal losing in the quarterfinals to Stefanos Tsitsipas on Wednesday at the Australian Open.
Nadal, 34, was trying to break the tie with Federer for the greatest number of Grand Slam titles in the history of men on Melbourne Park’s hard courts. They are blocked at 20.
But after winning the first two sets and much of the third against fifth-placed Tsitsipas, Nadal made a calamitous tiebreaker. Tsitsipas took advantage of the present, as well as the momentum, to pull the turn, 3-6, 2-6, 7-6, 6-4, 7-5.
Nadal’s departure only increases the chances that world number one Novak Djokovic, eight-time Australian Open champion and who always seemed to be the favorite, narrows the gap with his career rivals and wins 18th place on Sunday.
Djokovic’s remaining obstacles consist of a semifinal against Russian Aslan Karatsev and, if he wins, a final on Sunday against semifinal winner Tsitsipas-Daniil Medvedev.
Tsitsipas closed the victory in his third match point, with a backhand scorer just below.
“I have no words to describe what just happened on the court,” Tsitsipas told ESPN’s Jim Courier in an interview on the court and credited the victory to his ability to control his emotions after he started to get on edge.
“My tennis speaks for itself,” said Tsitsipas. “It is an incredible feeling to be able to fight at that level and give my all on the court.”
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With the comeback, the Greek matched his best performance in a Grand Slam, having reached the 2019 Australian Open semifinals in 2019 and the 2020 French Open.
He also became only the second man to recover from a two-set disadvantage against Nadal in a Grand Slam match. Italian Fabio Fognini was the other, knocking out Nadal in the third round of the 2015 US Open.
For Tsitsipas, 22, it was a mental triumph, above all, against the most physical player in the game.
Over the course of the four hours of play, Tsitsipas has evolved from an admittedly nervous and tense player to a free scorer without fear of the consequences.
“How would I describe myself?” he meditated later, asked to describe his mindset after winning what proved to be a crucial tiebreaker. “Nirvana. I’m just there – playing, not thinking.… I concentrated on one shot, one service. I wanted to stay on the court a little longer. It just took off alone.”
It was a match in which the momentum revolved around a single point: an overload seriously hit by Nadal in the tiebreak of the third set that triggered a series of mistakes by the Spaniard, who scored with the backhand and gave a seriously wrong backhand.
Up to that point, Nadal had been close to perfect, dominating with his serve, rarely missing his explosions on the ground and extending his sequence of consecutive sets by a major to 35.
The tiebreak put what looked like an ongoing victory for Nadal’s straight sets in a fourth set.
Nadal didn’t peep, but he sat down, changed his shirt and sent a handful of rackets out of the court to change.
Tsitsipas was the dominant player in all aspects in the fourth set, while Nadal’s intensity decreased.
“I don’t know what happened after the third set,” said Tsitsipas in his interview on the court. “I just fly like a bird. Everything was working for me. “
Nadal entered the tournament without his usual rigorous practices – partly because of safety precautions designed to minimize the spread of the coronavirus and partly because of a muscle strain in his back that he suffered just weeks before the tournament.
But he said in his post-game remarks that injury was not a factor in the result and praised Tsitsipas, whom he called “one of the best players in the world”, for raising his level of play.
“The whole point is that I lost an easy success. … An easy forehand with 2-1 in the tiebreak, and then another smash in that tiebreak, ”said Nadal. “In that tiebreak I made some mistakes that I can’t make to win the match or the rest of things.”
As the match progressed, Tsitsipas won the longest rallies, while Nadal, looking restless, began to press, trying to shorten points and making mistakes in the process.
A fifth decisive set followed at Rod Laver Arena, which under covid-19 protocols was empty, except for the players’ coaches and essential team members. It was tight, with momentum swaying back and forth.
But Tsitsipas stood his ground.
And Nadal graciously accepted defeat, while acknowledging his disappointment.
“I lost a match in the quarterfinals of an event that means a lot to me,” said Nadal. “The Australian Open is one of my favorite events, without a doubt. So, I missed the opportunity to be in that semifinal again. … Very well for him. He probably played better than me at important times. “
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