When Rafael Nadal won the Australian Open in 2009, he reached the semifinals without dropping a set. Once there, he met compatriot Fernando Verdasco, the fellow southpaw at the height of his powers, who pushed him for five sets and five hours before he finally prevailed.
A decade on, the 17-time Grand Slam champion has booked his spot in a fifth Australian Open final without dropping a single set, backed by a first-strike strategy designed to keep points short behind his revamped, more powerful serve.
The results are nothing short of staggering. Of Nadal’s 197 winners at this Australian Open so far, 100 have come from the forehand. Another 39 have been aces. Of the 567 points he has won, 391 have been in four shots or less, with an average rally length of 3.73.
It’s been ruthless. It’s been relentless. But don’t call this aggressive charge a revolution, says the Spaniard.
“I was aggressive because I am playing well, no?” Nadal insisted after his 6-2 6-4 6-0 demolition of Stefanos Tsitsipas, the 20-year-old first-time Grand Slam semifinalist who was left bereft of ideas in the face of a merciless masterclass from the Mallorcan on Thursday.
“It’s nothing new that I am aggressive. The problem with myself is, because I had a lot of success on clay, people probably think I am not aggressive. I really believe that people who think that are completely wrong.
“Of course, I am not doing serve and volley. I am not hitting winners every ball. But I play all the shots with a goal. There is no better way to be aggressive than hit every shot with the goal to create damage on the opponent. That has been my goal during all my career.
“Today I can do that damage little bit earlier than before, because during this event I have been serving great. So, when you serve great, then the first ball normally is a little bit easier. That’s probably the only reason. I had the determination to make that happen. That’s all.
“I always tried to be aggressive. I have my mentality. You can’t go against the way you understand the sport. I can’t play trying to hit winners off every ball if I don’t understand the sport that way. You can’t deal with the pressure. The mental part has to go in front of the game: that’s what I did during all my career.
“Today I have to adapt my game to the new time and to my age, that’s all. That’s what I did during all my career: just try to adapt my game with the circumstances that I went through. That’s the only reason why, at this moment, I’m still here competing at a high level.
“I know during that 15, 16 years, 17 years of tennis, a professional tennis career, I’m going to lose things on the way, so I need to add new things. That’s what I’ve tried to do all my career, to improve the things that I can improve.”
For Tsitsipas, the defeat left him in a state of shock. In three meetings with Nadal he has failed to take a set, and while he took confidence from his watershed victory over Roger Federer in the fourth round at Melbourne Park, the 20-year-old admitted the manner of his defeat to Nadal left him with more questions than answers.
“Hopefully I get closer next time,” said the No.14 seed. “As it seems, it’s going even worse than before. Against Rafa, I did play a good match in Toronto against him. I had my hopes high for the next time. I remember saying to myself, ‘I’m going to beat this guy next time I play him’. That’s why I’m so disappointed today, because I wasn’t even close.
“I really can’t think of something positive on that match. Probably the second set, which was the one that I got closer to. The rest, it 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.
“He gives you no rhythm. He plays a different game style than the rest of the players. He has this, I don’t know, talent that no other player has. I’ve never seen a player have this. He makes you play bad. I would call that a talent.
“The angles that he was using … My brain was used to a certain rhythm of the game with all the righty players that I played this week. Him, it felt like I was always, when he was playing, on the wrong foot. Didn’t check properly. Felt very slow today. I feel pretty fast when I’m on the court. I mean, I’ve improved a lot in that part of my game. Today I felt like a 2-meter-10 guy that can’t move on the court. That’s definitely not me.
“Just felt weird. The whole match felt weird from the very beginning. My body was stiff. I wouldn’t say I was serving very well. He just has a talent to make you play bad. That’s it.”
Source: Michael Beattie