The Major Takeaway

February 14, 2021

Although dealing with a back issue, the Rafael Nadal loves overcoming challenges and we shouldn’t be surprised if he becomes the men’s all-time Grand Slam leader next week

“Why aren’t we talking about Rafa winning his 21st major title more?”

It’s a question I’ve heard a few times during this year’s Australian Open, and a fair one. A Nadal win in Melbourne would make him the all-time Grand Slam leader on the men’s side.

At first, there seemed to be several plausible explanations. For one, Rafa’s back is, as he says, “not perfect,” so much so that it forced him to skip the ATP Cup last week and tweak his service motion this week. For another, he’s only won the Australian Open once in 15 tries; no matter how good he looks during this tournament, something always seems to come along to trip him up.

Most important, Novak Djokovic, who has won it eight times, is in the field. The last time they played at the Aussie Open, the Serb routed Rafa in three quick sets. Even if Nadal were to get to 21, the race wouldn’t be over. Djokovic would still be lurking at 17, and Roger Federer would still be active with 20.

But watching Rafa mow down Michael Mmoh 6-1, 6-4, 6-2 on Thursday in Rod Laver Arena, those explanations began to sound a little less plausible. Nadal, with his slightly adjusted service motion, didn’t appear to be hindered by his back at all. In fact, he was as loose and breezily confident as you’ll ever likely to see him in a Grand Slam match. For all of the tennis fans who don’t like how fidgety he is, or how long he takes between points, this was the Rafa you’ve been waiting to see for 15 years.

Nadal played quickly and mostly didn’t bother to use the towel; how many best-of-five Rafa matches end in an hour and 47 minutes? He attacked relentlessly, backpedaled furiously so he could hit as many forehands as possible, ended rallies as quickly as he could, and was 15 of 16 at net. He also tried a few shots he normally wouldn’t try, including an old-school, Ken Rosewall-style slice backhand pass that skimmed the tape and skidded past Mmoh for a winner. Most notably, Nadal, who is normally stone-faced on court, even allowed himself a good belly laugh after a woman in the crowd gave him the finger. It was by far the most dramatic moment of the night.

“For me was funny,” Nadal said with a laugh later. “Honestly somebody doing the finger to me...Maybe she taked too much gin or tequila.”

Nadal won nearly half (40 of 86) of his points with winners against Mmoh, who looked overmatched and constrained on the big stage in Laver. Yet for all of Rafa’s positive vibes and aggressive play, he says he’s still not out of the woods as far as his back is concerned.

“Not under control, honestly,” he said of the spasms that have been plaguing him. “If you see my motion on the serve, is different that what I would like, but I am trying to find solutions every day. The preparations the last 15 days have not been the ideal one, but here I am.”

We know that Nadal loves nothing more than to have an obstacle to overcome. At Roland Garros last year, it was the heavy balls and the cold conditions; figuring out a solution to those problems was a way to give himself a specific, day-to-day goal, and keep him from worrying about defending his title and winning his 20th major.

At the Aussie Open, Nadal’s back is the obstacle to overcome. In truth, a minor physical issue can help free up a player mentally, because he has a little less to lose.

One of Lleyton Hewitt’s coaches said that when a major event would come along, Hewitt would often find himself with a niggle somewhere in his body; it helped him take some of the pressure off himself. Nadal played what looked to be pressure-free tennis against Mmoh. He was free to leave his usual tics and rituals behind, and motivated to play as rapidly and efficiently as possible.

“We are doing everything possible to try to be better and better and still alive,” he said. “When things happens, that’s the only thing that you can do is accept it and keep going.”

We‘ve heard that stoical philosophy from Nadal during Grand Slam events many times before. He’s gone on to win 20 of them; we shouldn’t be surprised if he finds a way to make it 21 next week. –

The Major Takeaway