Rafa and Med
Sometime during the Rafael Nadal-Daniil Medvedev match early Sunday morning, I tried hard to come to grips with how I watch tennis. Well, I can tell you the exact moment, and I will shortly, but first let us talk a little bit about the genius of Rafael Nadal.
We are nearing the end — though, we are perhaps not as close to that end as it seemed two weeks ago — of a most remarkable era of men’s tennis. It has been almost 20 years since Roger Federer blasted his way through an overwhelmed field at Wimbledon. He was 21 years old then with a lethal forehand and an electric serve and a breezy way of moving that made it seem like he was actually hoverboarding a few inches above the court.
That also happened to be the first grand slam tournament of Rafa Nadal, then a 17-year-old kid. Nadal won his first two matches before being summarily dismissed by a speedy Top 10 player from Thailand named Paradorn Srichaphan. It would be the only time the two would play on tour, which means Srichaphan is one of the very few people on planet earth who has a winning record against Nadal.
I watched a little bit of that Srichaphan match on YouTube — Nadal at 17 is utterly recognizable, the heavy topspin forehand, the refusal to ever give up on a point, the fist pump after breaking serve, the grunts that echoed through London. The only difference between him in 2003 and him on Sunday seems to be the number of mistakes he made, the number of shots that hit the top of the net and fell back, the easy volleys that he flubbed. Nadal has made himself into one of the world’s best volleyers. But let’s not get ahead of ourselves.
Novak Djokovic would show up two years later at the Australian Open, where he had the misfortune of immediately being paired against the eventual champion, former No. 1 Marat Safin. Djokovic lost 6-0, 6-2, 6-1. Later that year, an 18-year-old wild-card named Andy Murray would battle his way into the third round of Wimbledon before succumbing to the talented David Nalbandian.*
*Nalbandian beat Roger Federer the first five times that they played.
And with that, tennis’ stage was set for a generation. The characters had been introduced. At first, Federer’s brilliance reigned — he won three of the four grand slams every single year from 2004 through 2007 — there has never been anything quite like that in men’s tennis. Of course, the one slam he did not win during that stretch of time was the French Open, and that was because of Nadal, already the young king of clay. Nadal’s all-court game was still developing, but on the red clay he was indomitable.
Nadal won three of the four grand slams in 2010, as Federer began to fade a little bit and Djokovic was only just beginning to activate. Djokovic won three of the four grand slams in 2011 as he began to eat healthier and take it all more seriously. And for the next decade, the three of them — with special guest appearances from Murray and others — took men’s tennis to another place.
What made it all so thrilling was how different they were, Federer as swashbuckler, Nadal as gladiator, Djokovic as turbulent artist.
And what made it so unique, at least for me as a sports fan, is that I rooted for all of them. I can’t think of an equivalent in any other sport. In boxing, I was an Ali fan. In golf, I rooted for Nicklaus. I chose Magic, Sugar Ray, Annika, Holyfield, Bolt, I was an Earl Anthony fan in bowling, I idolized Henry Rono in track and field, I always wanted Dwight Stones to win the Superstar competition.
We like to have fun here at Joe Blogs. Baseball. Football. Tennis. Chess. Family. Basketball. Music. Infomercials. Movies. Olympics. Hockey. Nonsense. Magic. In short, it’s an adventure. I hope you’ll come along.
Anytime individuals matched up — from cliff diving to world strong man competitions — I instinctively started rooting for one over another. Even in tennis, I was a diehard Martina Navratilova over Chris Evert fan, I wanted Ivan Lendl to always beat John McEnroe and Jimmy Connors, I rooted for Pete Sampras over Andre Agassi.
But something about the way Roger, Rafa and Novak played made that sort of rooting seem entirely beside the point. I saw more of my own patzer tennis game in Djokovic’s, so certainly I leaned a little more into his matches. But I loved Federer. I loved Nadal. I loved Murray. I even loved Stan Wawrinka, with his embarrassing Dad shorts and ferocious backhand, and Juan Martin del Potro for the way he detonated forehands, and Gaël Monfils for his Matrix-level gymnastics …
And, though it wasn’t exactly by choice, watching tennis that way has led to so many unexpected pleasures. It has allowed me to fully marvel at Roger Federer, fully appreciate the competitive will of Novak Djokovic and, on Sunday, to stand in awe of the indomitable Rafael Nadal.
It is rare that you see an entire career so gorgeously summed up in one day. I think it happened for Jack Nicklaus’ final round at the 1986 Masters. I think it happened for Michael Jordan in Game 6 against Utah in the 1997 NBA Finals. I think it was true of Ted Williams’ final at-bat at Fenway Park on Sept. 28, 1960.
In order for that moment to actually happen, you need three things:
Our hero needs to be down.
Our hero needs to be out.
Our hero needs to summon something that seemed gone.
Nadal’s nadir came in the third set — Medvedev had won the first set with some ease, and he had won a grueling second set in a tiebreak. Now, third set, fifth game, Nadal serving, and Medvedev decided once and for all to slay the dragon. On the first point, Medvedev hit a solid crosscourt backhand, and Nadal seemed to get a late break on it. He was tired. He was coming off an injury. He was aging. By the time he got to the ball, he was left only with a desperation try, so he ripped the forehand and hoped for the best. It went well wide.
On the second point, Nadal set up the point as he has set up a million before — heavy topspin forehand, slice backhand, until he got the shot he wanted, a sitter in the middle of the court. Nadal pounced on it and hit the down-the-line forehand that has buried players for 20 years. He hit it just a touch wide.
The third point was a classic, a brilliant serve up the middle that barely caught the line, Medvedev could only slice back a hopeless short lob, and Nadal set up for the overhead — perhaps the best overhead in tennis in his generation. Him or Federer. But he did not get hold of this one, and he allowed Medvedev to throw up another lob, but this one was not short. This one was perfect. It hit the baseline and forced Nadal to race back and reply with some no-look over-the-shoulder shot. That gave Medvedev the initiative. He pounced, moving Nadal left, then right, then left again, until he got the short ball to his favorite backhand side.
Medvedev leaped into it and hit the winner.
“That,” one international broadcaster said, “surely is the decisive point. The defining moment for Daniil. What defense! What sorcery was that?”
“Medvedev has the hammer and nails out and is about to put a lid on the coffin,” said another.
Yes, our hero had been down. Our hero was now out. And the stage was set for Rafa Nadal to do the very thing that his whole career had foreshadowed. He had always been the fighter. He had always been the warrior who never gave up on a point, never gave up on a game, never gave up on a match, and now came the moment for him to dig in deeper than ever before and put together what he would call “the biggest comeback of my tennis career.”
“Sport,” he would say, trying to explain, “is unpredictable.”
Yes. But also predictable. Because after he saved one break point with a heart-stopping little drop shot, after he saved the second by parrying a couple of powerful and deep Medvedev shots until he forced an error, after he saved the third with a brilliant deep backhand off a Medvedev drop shot (we’ll come back to this), a feeling coursed through every tennis fan around the world watching.
Rafa might yet win this match.
“I wanted to believe until the end,” Nadal would say.
And he did believe. It’s his superpower. He’s 35 years old now, older than Sampras was when he retired, older than Connors was when he reached his last final. He was playing on hard courts, his third-favorite surface. He was coming off a foot injury that made him miss most of last season and has been nagging him, on and off, for something like 15 years.
But he believed. The crowd began to get behind him — even a little too much, perhaps* — and he began to feel the old energy return, and for the next two and a half sets he found the player he was three years ago, five years ago, 10 years ago and 15 years ago.
There’s something about that player that I think gets missed sometimes: Nadal is known for his punishing ground strokes, jaw-dropping court coverage and fierce competitive fury. But the guy has an unbelievable all-court game. As mentioned, he made himself into a truly great volleyer. His overhead is as good as it gets. And he has truly absurd touch around net — that was the part that stuck out to me most. I mentioned the superb backhand he hit off a Medvedev drop shot to save break point. Well, late in the fifth set — after Nadal had gotten broken while trying to finish off the match — Medvedev tried another drop shot, an even better one.
And Nadal raced up, barely got to it, but somehow, someway, flicked a cross court backhand winner at an angle that Euclid himself could not have fathomed.
It was so wonderful, and now Nadal has 21 grand slam titles, he’s all alone in the lead. Jeff Sackman, on his excellent Tennis Abstract podcast, asked me to handicap the greatest-ever race now that Nadal has moved past Djokovic and Federer, which he knew was a totally unfair question, but I’d say this: For those three guys, I would wager that the player who has the most grand slam titles will always have just the slightest of edges over the other two. Yes, there are super-compelling arguments for Federer even if he doesn’t have the slam record, and even more compelling arguments for Djokovic, and in the end I still believe that they’re all tied for No. 1.
But Nadal has one more slam. And I’ll bet in the minds of Federer and Djoker, that means an awful, awful lot.
Speaking of Federer, you probably heard that he released a beautiful little statement about his friend Rafa. “A few months ago,” he wrote, “we were joking about both being on crutches. Amazing. Never underestimate a great champion.”
Djokovic also released a classy statement — “Congratulations to Rafael Nadal for 21st GS. Amazing achievement. Always impressive fighting spirit that prevailed another time. Enhorabuena” — but it did not get quite the same media treatment for all the reasons you can guess.
And there you go: One of the greatest moments in tennis — and, yes, sports — history. Doesn’t seem like there’s much else to say.
Except, well, it seems to me that there’s one part missing, one heartbreaking little part.
At the top, I mentioned how I watch tennis now — not with a rooting interest for players, exactly, but instead I root for tennis, I root for moments, I root for brilliance.
And I have become a huge fan of Daniil Medvedev.
There are a lot of reasons for this. One is very personal and technical; I have started trying to emulate his toss on my own serve. What was happening before was that I would be moving forward DURING MY TOSS, and so by the time I hit my serve, my momentum was pulling me downward, and I would hit too many serves into the net. I know you don’t care about this, nor should you, but I imagine myself as Medvedev when I serve now, high toss, don’t start moving until the ball is gone, etc.
But the bigger reason is that Medvedev to me seems to be all heart. That’s good and bad, of course, but it’s always real — the guy’s emotions are out there, on the surface, you don’t really have to guess what's going through his head. He dances. He complains. He jokes. He loses his mind. He laughs liberally. It’s a carnival out there with Medvedev, and for a sport that thrives on contrasting styles and personalities, Medvedev is an absolute blast.
And there was a moment in the third set when, honestly, my heart just broke for him. Yes, we all know that pretty much everyone in the crowd was rooting for Nadal and for history. That’s natural. And, despite my own tennis fan disposition, I fully get that by rooting for Nadal you are also rooting against Medvedev. Add on that Medvedev had already gotten into a couple of spats with the crowd during the tournament, and what happened was probably inevitable.
And this is what happened: Medvedev was serving in the third set, games tied 4-4, Nadal up in the game 15-30, when Medvedev hit a beautiful serve up the middle and all Nadal could do with it was pop it back over the net, short. It was a dead meat shot; Medvedev had about 500 choices of how to put it away. He chose the least promising of those choices; he tried to awkwardly just punch a little drop shot over the net. It was unnecessarily risky. And the ball hit the tape and fell back.
And the crowd roared and roared at his mistake.
You could see how much those roars hurt him. Yes, this is sport. Yes, fans cheer for their own. Yes, people in the crowd wanted to see history*. But Daniil Medvedev had spent almost his entire life practicing and practicing, working to overcome all of his doubts, pushing on through all the low moments, and it had taken him 8,959 miles from home to the final of the Australian Open, and he just made a critical mistake, and thousands and thousands of strangers cheered his failure.
*Actually, Medvedev was trying to make history himself by becoming the first man in tennis history to win his first major title and then follow it up right away with a second — but that wasn’t the sort of history the crowd was interested in.
This was not how Daniil Medvedev had pictured his life as a tennis player. He didn’t expect to be the fan’s favorite, necessarily, but he also didn’t expect to be the fan’s villain. He sarcastically applauded the crowd for their taunts and derision, and they booed him even more lustily, and I just hated the whole thing.
After the match, Medvedev would tell this story, of himself, a six-year-old boy who picked up a racket and dreamed about big things. Then he was 12 years old, already playing in some Russian tournaments, and he would watch the grand slam events and see how the fans cheered the players, and he would fantasize about those cheers someday being for him. Then he was a little older, and he played in the final of a big junior tournament in Turkey, and there were maybe a thousand people in the stands, and he heard those loud cheers for the first time, and he loved them.
And then he began playing in pro tournaments, and he noticed that the crowds were not often with him. Was it because he was Russian? Maybe, but is that a reason? Was it because he showed personality and emotion on the court? Maybe, but isn’t that what people want?
“Today,” he said after the Nadal match, “the kid stopped dreaming. The kid is going to play for himself.”
I really hate that. Daniil Medvedev has emerged as the best player of his generation. This was his fourth grand slam final, and of the three he lost, two were epic five-setters against Nadal. He does everything so well — big serve, huge return, moves well, doesn’t miss. He’s really fun to watch. And off the court, he’s smart, engaging, speaks a bunch of languages and talks openly about pretty much everything. He’s 25 years old and will surely become No. 1 in the world over the next few months.
You get why people were rooting for Rafael Nadal to turn back time.
I just wish people wouldn’t root against Daniil Medvedev because he’s a wonder too.
What a fantastic article!! Maybe one day when the big 3 retire the crowds will begin to cheer for Daniil
I can only assume that one of these days, you’ll write an incredible book about the intertwined legacies of Federer, Nadal, and Djokovic.
I don’t even watch tennis, but I read every one of your tennis posts and love them. I would definitely read that sure-to-be amazing book.