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From Down Under to 21st century: Spaniard puts heartbreaks in Australia behind him


It’s fitting that Melbourne Park was the venue for Rafael Nadal’s record-breaking 21st Grand Slam title. The 2-6, 6-7 (5), 6-4, 6-4, 7-5 over Daniil Medvedev also ended his long wait of winning all four Grand Slams at least twice.

Injuries and bad luck had put the ‘hard’ in ‘hardcourts’ for Nadal at the Australian Open — christened the ‘Happy Slam’ by Roger Federer for being the first Major of the season for the recharged, inspired players.

After winning his first hardcourt Major at the Australian Open in 2009 — a five-set victory that reduced the Swiss great to tears — Nadal had had a horrid run of luck Down Under. The venue has witnessed two of the only three times that Nadal has retired midway into a match: the 2010 and 2018 quarterfinals.

In 2010, his knee gave out while he was down 0-3 in the third set against Andy Murray, while in 2018 Nadal had to retire 0-2 in the fifth set against Marin Cilic due to a hip injury.


In 2011, Nadal was gunning for a fourth straight Grand Slam triumph when a hamstring niggle and spirited compatriot David Ferrer ended his campaign in the quarterfinal.

“For me, it’s all about the Australian Open more than anything else, no?” Nadal had said ahead of Sunday’s final. “It’s just an amazing event. I have been a little bit unlucky during my career with some injuries and other times I played amazing finals with good chances against Novak (Djokovic) 2012, against Roger 2017. I was close a couple of times. I feel very lucky that I won once in my career.”

Injuries and seven quarterfinal exits since winning the 2009 title would have stung, sure. But defeats in classic Australian Open finals would have hurt unbearably. Nadal has been part of epics in Melbourne, but only as the second lead.

Bittersweet memories

The 2012 final against Novak Djokovic, regularly cited as the greatest tennis match of all time, saw the two titans play their hearts out in a five-hour, 53-minute contest. Nadal was 4-2 up in the decider, before a regular backhand missed its mark. The Serb clawed back and shut the door. The presentation ceremony from 2012 is recalled as vividly as the match itself.

While the dignitaries talked, the two twenty-somethings stretched, bent over, rested their hands on their knees and even leaned up against the net for support… before a benevolent fellow retrieved two chairs.

The 2014 final saw Stanislas Wawrinka win his first Grand Slam against a hobbling Nadal. He had suffered a back injury during the warm-up, competed for four sets while nursing a blister the size of a Rs10 coin on his hand, and eventually lost to a player he had a 12-0 record against.

Then in 2017, Nadal and Federer turned back the clock. The former had the match under control before the 35-year-old Federer fought back from 1-3 down in the fifth set to win five straight games, and spark a mini-renaissance for himself.

The final against Djokovic in 2019 was an epic of a different kind. Djokovic dismantled Nadal 6-3, 6-2, 6-3. “Things started so quick,” Nadal snapped his fingers to explain his heaviest final defeat. There was no chagrin. Only the cold, hard, ‘you-got-me’ acceptance of a gunslinger who had lost to a quicker draw.

He didn’t fare much better against #GenNext. Last year, he lost to Stefanos Tsitsipas after being 2-0 sets up — only the second such Grand Slam loss for Nadal.

“I’m not at all feeling unlucky for me and I’m not at all complaining about my luck here in Australia. Everyone has what they deserve, tennis isn’t a sport that is fair and I have what I deserve in my career,” he told reporters. “Probably here in Australia, I’ve had chances but I was not able to convert it, so that’s all. I didn’t deserve more. We can find a lot of excuses and reasons but all the reason is I was not able to convert the opportunities I’ve had in my career.”

Polite to a fault

Nadal, of course, refused to cite bad luck. But so painful was his record at the tournament that even tennis writers went into denial. Earlier this month, a veteran journalist quizzed Nadal: “You haven’t reached the semifinals at the Australian Open since you won the title in 2009. I just wondered if there’s anything you find difficult or challenging about the conditions compared to other Grand Slams.”

Befuddled and bemused, the 35-year-old corrected the reporter, in signature Nadal politeness.

“I am very sorry to tell you – I don’t want to – but I have been in the final of 2012, ’14, ’17, ’18. I got injured a couple of times here in my tennis career, so of course, it’s been a great tournament for me, and of course, I had a lot of challenges in terms of injuries in this event.

“Sorry to correct you,” he repeated with a grin.

The monkey’s off his back now. Another five-set epic, that too against a younger star, and this time Nadal was decidedly the star of the show.

“I am super, super-tired in all ways. I can’t even celebrate. But was the day to give everything, no?” Nadal told reporters. “At the end, having this trophy with me means everything today, no?”

For Nadal, Melbourne Park is Heartbreak Hotel no more.





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