Since he won his first Grand Slam title in 2005, Rafael Nadal has accomplished everything tennis has to offer. The 33-year-old has dominated the French Open, winning 12 times. He’s won Wimbledon twice and the U.S. Open four times. He helped Spain to the Davis Cup title five times. He won Olympic gold in 2008 in singles and 2016 in doubles.1
Simply put, Nadal is extraordinary in every way. There’s just one weak spot, and it makes no sense: The man who has solved every puzzle in tennis can’t figure out the Australian Open.
Nadal has a perfect 12-0 record in French Open finals and a 4-1 record in the finals of the U.S. Open. At Wimbledon, he is 2-3 in finals. At the Australian, he is only 1-4.
Nadal prevailed (6-3, 3-6, 7-6, 7-6) on Monday over Nick Kyrgios. He is now three wins away from his 20th Grand Slam singles title, which would tie him with Roger Federer for the record among the men. If he won the Australian and went on to win the French Open for the 13th time, he would surpass Federer. But first, he needs to conquer Melbourne again.
Nadal won his only Australian Open title in 2009, at just 22 years old. He was young, fit and determined. It seemed like he would win the major at least a few more times. But then his struggles started.
In 2012, Nadal came up short against Novak Djokovic in a thrilling final that lasted nearly six hours. Nadal led 4-2 in the final set and was up 30-15 in that seventh game, needing only to hit a wide-open backhand right at the net to go up 40-15. It was a freebie shot that, somehow, he missed. Djokovic recovered and won the fifth set 7-5, taking his third Australian Open title.
Two years later, Nadal was a favorite in the final. He had beaten Federer in the semifinals, three sets to none, and his final opponent, Stan Wawrinka, had upset Djokovic in the quarterfinals. Wawrinka was expected to be nervous in his first Slam final. But he shocked the world and beat Nadal, who was suffering from a back injury. (To Nadal’s credit, he applauded Wawrinka. “I’m very happy for him,” Nadal said. “He’s a great, great guy.”)
The final in 2017 looked like a lock for Nadal. His opponent, Federer, had not played a match since July 2016 before entering the tournament — six months in all. Worse still, Federer hadn’t beaten Nadal in a Grand Slam match since Wimbledon in 2007. So when Federer fell behind 3-1 in the fifth set — and called for a trainer — he seemed doomed. But then, like magic, Federer didn’t lose another game.
Australia was unkind to Nadal the past two years, too. Nadal retired in the fifth set of the 2018 quarterfinal against Marin Čilić after leading two sets to one. In 2019, Nadal had another surprise: He met Djokovic again in the final, and his rival leveled him in just two hours and four minutes, 6-3, 6-2, 6-3. Nadal had not lost a set leading up to the final.
Nadal’s struggles are all the more strange because most of the top stars have won a big chunk of their Slam titles at the Australian Open. Djokovic has seven Australian titles, while Federer has six. Andre Agassi won four times, including his last three major titles, while Pete Sampras won twice. Mats Wilander won three titles in Melbourne, and Jim Courier won two of his four Slam titles there. The Australian Open rewards top players by letting them play their best tennis after an offseason of rest and recovery. Nadal rests too, of course, but he hasn’t found the same reward lately.
Can Nadal get over the hump this year in Australia? His next opponent: Dominic Thiem, who has looked strong. Nadal will need to play as well as possible to reach the semifinals.
“I like him a lot, the way that he works, the way that he plays, and the way that he tries his best always,” Nadal said. “[It’s] a match that’s going to be a tough one, but will be interesting, no?”