Nadal survives five-setter as Shapovalov claims officials ‘100%’ favour top players

·6 min read

As Rafael Nadal initiated another run at the Australian Open this year, he was as curious about how well his game and body would serve him as anyone else. He had endured a six-month layoff due to a chronic foot injury, a tough bout with Covid at precisely the wrong time and he arrived in Melbourne having barely spent time on-court in the preceding few weeks. The hope, he said, was that he would keep himself in the tournament long enough to keep on improving.

On Tuesday afternoon he maintained his spot in the tournament but only by the narrowest of margins and it took all that he had. He led Denis Shapovalov by two sets, only for the Canadian to courageously pull Nadal all the way back into a desperate fifth set. After four long hours, Nadal rose to win 6-3, 6-4, 4-6, 3-6, 6-3 and reach his seventh semi-final at the Australian Open.

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Immediately after his victory, Nadal was asked how he managed to turn the match around. He shook his head: “I don’t know, honestly,” he said. “I was completely destroyed after that. Very tough day, very warm. Honestly, I didn’t practise for this. I was a little lucky at the beginning of the fifth. At the beginning of the match I was playing great, then I know how difficult it is to play against a player like Denis.”

Nadal was extremely sharp from the beginning as he took hold of the match. He served well in the opening two sets, he found a high number of forehands and dominated with it from the middle of the court. Meanwhile, the Canadian initially exhibited all of the worst parts of his game. He was erratic and unreliable, his forehand sprayed errors and he complemented Nadal’s excellent serving with dire returns. Early in the second set, Shapovalov directed his frustration at the time Nadal took between points. After an argument with the umpire, Carlos Bernardes, he shouted: “You guys are all corrupt.”

While Shapovalov is likely to face scrutiny – and a potential fine – for the comments, he doubled down on his concerns in his post match press conference while admitting he misspoke on court. The Canadian was adamant that he was in the right with his complaints over the time Nadal was spending between points and he said that Nadal and other top players receive preferential treatment: “Of course. 100% he does. 100%. Every other match that I have played, the pace has been so quick because the refs have been on the clock after every single point,” said Shapovalov. “This one, I mean, after the first two sets it was like an hour and a half just because he’s dragged out so much after every single point. He’s given so much time in between sets and all this. It’s just dragged out.”

Shapovalov complains how much time Nadal is taking between points during the match.
Shapovalov complains how much time Nadal is taking between points during the match. Photograph: TPN/Getty Images

After those first two sets, however, momentum had swung. Despite Nadal’s opportunities to take hold of the third set, Shapovalov showed his toughness, digging out tight, gritty holds with bold shotmaking. It was instead Nadal’s serve, as he struggled in the heat, that began to crumble. While Shapovalov took control of the baseline, Nadal double faulted four times in the third set. In the fourth set, he gave the decisive break away at 2-1 in the fourth set with a double fault. Shapovalov, meanwhile, served supremely to eventually force a fifth set.

“I started to feel bad honestly at the end of the second,” said Nadal. “It was very warm out there today and the conditions were hard. I think of course all these kind of matches helps to me to be in better shape, but we can’t forget that I didn’t play much tennis for such a long time, no? So under these very hard conditions, is difficult for me.”

During the fourth set, Nadal called the physio and he received tablets after being evaluated. He had a further off-court medical evaluation after the fourth set before taking a bathroom break. The decisive moment came at 1-0 in the final set as Shapovalov capitulated on his serve, striking four unforced errors. Despite his service woes, his apparent physical issues and a much younger, hungry opponent across the net, Nadal held onto his serve throughout the set and he moved on to reach his first Australian Open semi-final since 2019.

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Asked for his perspective on the controversy of the day, Nadal said that he feels sorry for Shapovalov after such a tough loss. “I wish him all the very best. He’s young, and everybody, I think we all make mistakes on our careers. I make a lot of mistakes too when I was younger, and probably he will understand later on after he thinks the proper way that probably he was not right today.”

As he digested his victory, Nadal reflected on his journey over the past few months. During those long months of trying to find a solution for his foot and even the time he spent bedridden by Covid, he questioned his future in the game. How quickly things can change in tennis. Nadal is now a grand slam semi-finalist again and he stands two wins from his 21st major title. “Two months ago we didn’t know if we would be able to be back on tour, at all,” he said. “So, here I am. For me, it is a present of life that I am playing tennis again.”

Nadal will face Matteo Berrettini, the seventh seed, in the semi-final after the Italian also led by two sets before holding off a spirited fightback from his opponent, eventually beating Gael Monfils 6-4, 6-4, 3-6, 3-6, 6-2 in just under four hours. Berrettini has now reached the semi-final at three of the four slams.

“I’m really happy for myself,” he said. “What a great fight again against Gael. Great match, a lot of emotions. I thought I had him in the third and then I found myself in the fifth but I really fought hard and put everything in the court. That’s what I said to myself and that’s why I’m pretty happy.”

Friday will mark the second meeting between Berrettini and Nadal after that US Open semi-final. “It was the only time that I played Rafa,” said Berrettini. “It was a really tough match for me, he won the tournament after. It was my first semi-final, I didn’t really know what to expect and even for the first set I had set points. I’m pretty sure it’s gonna be a great fight. He played five sets today as well, so he needs to rest as well.”

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