If Stefanos Tsitsipas’ run at the Australian Open had been like a dream till now, the match against Rafael Nadal was a rude awakening.
The Greek youngster, who had impressed with the variety in his game and strength of mind through the week, seemed thoroughly out of depth against a marauding Nadal. The Spaniard, who last won the Australian Open a decade ago, beat Tsitsipas 6-2, 6-4, 6-0 in an hour and 46 minutes.
“Hopefully I can play better than that,” Nadal quipped after booking a place in his fifth Australian Open final.
The 32-year-old has struck a rich vein for form in Melbourne, making it to the summit clash of the Major without dropping a set for the very first time. Dressed in a sunshine yellow sleeveless T-shirt, Nadal seems to have turned back the clock to his days of total domination. And the Next Genners have bore the brunt of it: Nadal had dismissed Australia’s Alex De Minaur in the third round and Frances Tiafoe in the quarter-final before taking care of the precocious Tsitsipas. It was Nadal laying down the marker.
“They don’t need any message,” Nadal said of the new wave of players. “They are good, improving every month. It is always a big challenge to play against them. There is a new and very good generation coming. They are here now.”
As well as the youngsters have played at the Australian Open, they will have to wait in the wings a little longer. The Spaniard made sure that the old guard will be represented — Novak Djokovic may yet join him — in another Major final.
Nadal’s overbearing physical presence on Thursday was in complete contrast to the picture of fragility he had been cut down to in Melbourne last year. Locked in a close battle with Marin Cilic, Nadal had retired in fifth set in the quarter-final due to injury. Nadal had played only one hard-court event — the Canadian Masters — in the run-up to the 2018 US Open. He had pulled the plug in that too, retiring mid-way through the semi-finals against Juan Martin Del Potro.
The Spaniard has lost chunks of time, through his career, due to injury and the concerns seemed to resurface last year. Though Nadal was pretty much invincible again on clay — winning his 11th French Open title — he played only nine tournaments in 2018, the last of which was the US Open in September. Nadal also withdrew from the 2019 Brisbane Open, his only tune-up event for the Australian Open, with a thigh injury.
Despite the lack of preparation, Nadal’s game has been absolutely on point this fortnight. He has not only quashed the challenge of Next Genners, but also cruised past veteran Tomas Berdych, who had beaten him in Melbourne before.
The Rod Laver Arena had crackled with anticipation on Thursday when Nadal followed Tsitsipas out onto the court. Tsitsipas had caused quite a sensation on this court on Sunday when he defeated Roger Federer. Two days later he had backed that up with a confident performance against Nadal’s countryman Roberto Bautista Agut. With the large Greek population in Melbourne coming out in numbers to cheer their man on, the Australian Open had started to resemble a massive breakthrough party for Tsitsipas.
But Nadal was in no mood to join in. Nadal made clean, heavy cuts at the ball to keep a lid on Tsitsipas’ effervescent talent. The Spaniard, who usually likes to lurk on the baseline and trap his rivals into errors, went on an offensive from the first game and pushed Tsitsipas on almost each of his service games. The 20-year-old from Greece had been one of the best servers this tournament but was broken six times in the match. On the contrary, Nadal faced only one break point late in the match and saved that too.
The numbers tell a tale of dominance: Nadal hit 28 winners to Tsitsipas’ 17 and 14 unforced errors to 22 from his opponent, he converted six of the 11 break points, won 43 percent of the receiving points, and 18 of 22 net points.
“Honestly, I have no idea what I can take from that match,” a shell-shocked Tsitsipas said. “It's not that I was even close to get to something. I only got six games from that match. I don't know, I feel very strange. I feel happy with my performance in this tournament, but at the same time I feel disappointed.
“It kind of felt like in a way it wasn't tennis so much like the other matches that I played. It felt like a different dimension of tennis completely. I feel like I could do a bit better today. He gives you no rhythm. He plays just a different game style than the rest of the players. He has this, I don't know, talent that no other player has. He makes you play bad.”
There were times, when the only challenge for Nadal seemed to come from the inanimate shot clock. The Spaniard was, several times, rushed to serve as the clock ticked down to zero. Even though his first serve percentage was at an average 66 percent, he conceded only 12 points on his serve through the match. Twice in the first set, which lasted only 31 minutes, Nadal served his games out at love.
Tsitsipas did try to make a match of it in the second set. Especially in the fifth game, when he fought back from 0-40 down and went up a game point with a beautiful backhand stretch volley. Though he survived that game, Tsitsipas couldn’t quite prise open the absolute hold Nadal kept on the match. After losing serve in the ninth game of the second set, the Greek swiftly faded away.
It might be a tough defeat to swallow for Tsitsipas, given the incredible highs he hit in this tournament. But it might serve as an important lesson in a steep learning curve that tennis has become for these youngsters.
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Updated Date: Jan 25, 2019 11:38:50 IST