On Friday night in Australia, it was getting close to midnight, and his match against Karen Khachanov of Russia was entering the third hour of play. Nadal maintained a commanding lead, but Khachanov, a 25-year-old Russian, was gathering momentum and closing in on the third set. It was imperative for Nadal, who was a decade older and had just returned to the court after an almost six-month recuperation from a persistent foot ailment, to do all he could to prevent one of his legendary wars of attrition. Nadal has won many of these confrontations in the past, and he may be able to do it again, but at a big cost.
In the latter stages of the third set, as well as the beginning of the fourth, Nadal took a few steps closer to the baseline to gain an advantage. Instead than depending on his hallmark technique of hitting eight strokes to set himself up for a winning shot on the ninth, he targeted the lines with his serves and went for it whenever he sensed a glimpse of opportunity.
When asked about his return to the tactic that had helped him to take an early advantage against Khachanov, Nadal remarked, “If I’m able to get the break back, it’s wonderful.” “If it doesn’t happen, I’m going to start playing more aggressively on the fourth.” “Let’s see whether it really works.”
The results of the experiment came quickly, with Nadal breaking Khachanov’s serve in the second game of the fourth set, which was the culmination of the experiment. A winning service return from Nadal was followed by an unstoppable cross-court forehand from what is meant to be his backhand area of the court, followed by a sprinting backhand up the line to complete the comeback. Then he sank to his knees and pounded his fist four times, knowing that the finish line was now just four games away.
Nadal’s playing has always been characterised by a sense of urgency. Every changeover is punctuated by a rush back onto the court by him. However, what has become evident for him and his aged peers in Australia over the course of the last week is how critical it has become to get things done on the court as soon as possible.
Nadal, who declared six weeks ago that he couldn’t play for more than a half-hour without his foot causing him agony, has won nine of ten sets in his first three matches at the Australian Open. Nadal is the defending champion. In his warm-up competition, he won all three of the matches he played and all six of the sets he played on his path to the championship.
Gael Monfils, the 35-year-old Frenchman who is now enjoying some of his greatest tennis of his career, is seeing a similar surge in efficiency. Since then, Monfils has not lost a set in three matches, as well as claiming a win in a tune-up tournament in Australia earlier this month.
He came dangerously near to dropping a set on Friday afternoon against Cristian Garin of Chile, who seemed to be in complete control of the tiebreaker after taking a dominating 4-1 lead in the first set. After that, Monfils found a way to do his Monfils thing, flinging those long arms and legs, as well as his passionate movement, into each and every shot. Monfils took the first set with a couple powerful serves and then a brilliant backhand down the line, and from there he was in cruise control, chit-chatting with his wife, Elina Svitolina, who had lost earlier in the day but was still in the seats and watching from the stands.
Monfils, who will play Serbia’s Miromir Kecmanovic in the fourth round, and Nadal, who will play France’s Adrian Mannarino in the fifth round, don’t have to go far for a cautionary storey to heed.
Andy Murray’s week did not go as planned, as he had hoped, or as he had anticipated, particularly after his travels to Australia had begun on such a high one.
Murray sneaked into the final of a tuneup competition in Sydney last week, while Novak Djokovic took up the majority of the tennis oxygen. He did so by defeating the considerably higher-ranked David Goffin, Reilly Opelka, and Nikoloz Basilashvili, all of whom were far higher-ranked than Murray. However, he was defeated in the final by Aslan Karatsev, and it appeared to be practically beside the point.
Murray said that he had been discussing this with his team for a long time, which makes sense given the circumstances. Since the outbreak of the pandemic, his Grand Slam performances have comprised either an epic triumph followed by a swift defeat or a single loss in an epic.
Murray, of course, would like to be playing in the second week of the most important tournaments once more, something Nadal did not anticipate would be possible this quickly, and at a time when figuring out how to win quickly has never been more important, as Friday’s victory at the Australian Open demonstrated.