Rafael Nadal entered his open from Australia quarter-final with a 223-1 record in the first two sets of a Grand Slam match.
Thanks to his own mistakes – and the fiery play of Stefanos Tsitsipas – this mark is now 223-2.
Some unusually sloppy overheads and a framed backhand in a third-set tiebreaker started Nadal’s loss, and his bid here for a men’s-record 21st Major Championship finally ended on Wednesday with 3-6 2-6 7-6 (7-4) 6-4 7-5 loss at the younger and more pointed Tsitsipas.
“It was a bit of everything, right? I missed a few balls in the tie-break that I shouldn’t – that I couldn’t – miss if I wanted to win. And that’s it,” Nadal said. , who briefly left the Spanish side of his post-match press conference after gripping his right thigh cramps.
On his return, he joked that he didn’t want to be a meme again like he did at the US Open, when he nearly disappeared under a press conference table in pain after succumbing to mid-interview painful cramps.
“After so many jokes that there were in New York, I decided to go out so that there would be no more jokes,” Nadal said, according to a translation from Eurosport.
Returning to his tennis, “I have to come home,” Nadal said, “and practice to be better.”
At his put-the-ball-where-he-wants-best early on, Nadal went ahead quite easily, winning 27 straight points on his serve in a streak and executing his streak of straight sets won in the major tournaments at 35., a shy of Roger Federer’s record for the professional era.
Nadal and Federer are currently tied for 20 Grand Slam singles titles, more than any other man in the history of a sport dating back to the late 1800s.
But Tsitsipas never wavered and this surprisingly mediocre tiebreaker from Nadal – thinking too far maybe? – helped put the third set back and start the epic comeback.
“I started very nervous, I won’t lie,” said Tsitsipas, fifth seed. “But I don’t know what happened after the third set. I just flew like a little bird. Everything was working for me. The emotions at the very end are indescribable.”
While Tsitsipas played, according to Nadal, a “very, very high level of tennis” in the last two sets, the 34-year-old Spaniard’s game has dropped considerably.
Nadal only committed 10 unforced errors in total in the first two sets combined, then 32 the rest of the course – 11 in the third, 14 in the fourth, seven in the fifth.
The only other occasion Nadal went from a straight set advantage to a Slam loss came at the 2015 US Open against Fabio Fognini (who had lost to Nadal in the fourth round at Melbourne Park this year).
So now, instead of Nadal trying to outdo Federer, it will be Tsitsipas – a 22-year-old Greek with flashy play – who meets 2019 US Open runner-up Daniil Medvedev in the semi-final on Friday.
Neither Tsitsipas nor Medvedev have won a Grand Slam tournament.
In the other men’s semi-final, Novak Djokovic, a 17-time major and No.1 champion, will face 114th qualifier Aslan Karatsev, who is making his Grand Slam debut.
The women’s semi-finals on Thursday (Wednesday evening EST) are Serena Williams vs. Naomi Osaka and Jennifer Brady vs. Karolina Muchova.
Nadal won the 2009 Australian Open, but it’s the only major he hasn’t won at least twice, with 13 titles at Roland Garros, four at the US Open and two at Wimbledon.
“Sometimes things go well,” Nadal said, “and sometimes things get worse”.
He arrived at this year’s first major tournament with doubts on his back, citing this as a reason for withdrawing from the ATP Cup tag team competition leading up to the Australian Open and saying the issue had him prevented from training properly for about three weeks.
But Nadal said after the loss to Tsitsipas that his back was not a problem.
Nadal had not given up a set at Melbourne Park in four matches; he also won the 21 sets he played at Roland Garros last year, where he won his 20th Slam trophy (Williams has 23, Margaret Court 24).
Federer hasn’t competed for more than a year after two knee surgeries.
With howling seagulls delivering an eerie nighttime soundtrack to Rod Laver Arena – but no spectators, as they were banned during a local COVID-19 lockdown and won’t return until Thursday – Nadal still had an answer for everything what Tsitsipas was trying at the beginning.
Rush the net? Here is an oblique pass shot. Hang out at the baseline? Good luck trying to outsmart Nadal from there.
The most tense moments of Stefanos Tsitsipas’ career
It looked like it could be a repeat of their 2019 semi-final in Australia, when Nadal overwhelmed Tsitsipas and allowed him to win just six games.
But this time, Tsitsipas arrived after three full days off, as the man he was supposed to face in the fourth round, No.9 Matteo Berrettini, retired with an abdominal injury.
That – and a 12-year age difference – could have contributed to Tsitsipas feeling fresher at the end as he played beyond four hours. Tsitsipas, who has been a future star for years, almost managed this kind of shock against Djokovic in the semi-final at Roland Garros in October, going from two sets to forcing a fifth.
Tsitsipas was unable to close the deal at the time.
He did it against Nadal.
Tsitsipas eventually took the lead at 6-5 in the fifth breaking love as Nadal missed a series of shots and then served the win by converting his third match point with a backhand winner.
“I am speechless. I have no words to describe what just happened on the pitch,” Tsitsipas said.
“It’s an incredible feeling to be able to fight at such a level and to be able to give it your all on the court.”
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