Rafael Nadal says you can return to the tennis circuit, but you don’t really feel back on it until you begin to string wins together. He should know; he has had to specialise in in coming back.
Now he has three n Open wins, the beginning of a string, and the latest, a four-hour five-set come-from-behind outlasting of precocious German neophyte Alexander Zverev, was as good as two in one.
When it was done, Nadal said simply: “Everyone knows how good Alexander is. He is the future of our sport, and the present, too, now.” Nadal is the past and the present: this match deserves to be remembered as a famous crossroad.
Nadal says only by stringing together shots and points can you regain the feeling that all is automatic, and that instinct can be trusted, that they will accumulate into winning matches. At first, Zverev seemed intent on denying him this.
In the early going, he beat Nadal variously and almost insouciantly with drop shots, lobs and rasping baseline drives, and every now than a 210 km/h-plus serve, meanwhile showing a 19-year-old’s eye for line calls. The match fairly rattled along in a most un-Nadal-like way.
None of this would have surprised Nadal. Zverev is 19, and a soaring 198 centimetres, but with co-ordination, qualities that were once thought to be as irreconcilable as Shane Warne’s spin and accuracy. He winds up and delivers like a trebuchet. He is a rare latter-day example of a teenager with game. Pre-match, Nadal paid tribute to him as a future major winner and No. 1. He blazed through the first set.
But there is game, and there is game-day know-how. It doesn’t sound like much difference, and it is not, but it is crucial. Zverev fell back in the court a little, and Nadal was happy to rally him there. Twenty-one shots? Twenty-five? Better. Thirty, the longest? Suits me. That is too simple, of course. In four hours of tennis, the dynamics rarely stay the same. Zverev showed that he could throttle back, Nadal that he had all the gears, still. Bit by bit, all his lines came back to him.
At times, Zverev’s game still monstered Nadal. Zverev’s best shot, his backhand, fed naturally into Nadal’s, his forehand, but didn’t worry the German. It takes either youthful bravado or supreme ability to spike a weapon by loading it, but that, among much else, is what Zverev did.
But monstering is only one way. Nadal’s is equal and opposite. So the match had its pattern, in three sets, an early break and a long, willing play-out, in one, no break at all, but a rousing tiebreaker instead, won by Zverev. In the fifth, as night fell and tiredness set in, the course changed: a break each way, then the effective denouement. Serving at deuce, Zverev won a 37-shot rally, but it sped the onset of cramps in his calves. Nadal won the next three points. He would not yield the lead this time.
At 19, Zverev might wonder what more he has to do. That is the Nadal effect. In truth, all – all! – he has to do is to continue to develop as he is now. He towers over the court already; the game will come to heel. For Nadal, this was two progressions in one, victory, and another work-out.
“Today was a big battle,” he said. “I am very happy to get through. I enjoyed very much this battle.” You knew he was earnest.
Elsewhere in Melbourne, Andy Murray might have smiled ruefully. With Novak Djokovic out of the way, for the first time, he has a major championship at his mercy. But look: first Roger Federer on Friday night, now Nadal on the middle Saturday, gathering. Federer is notionally No.17, his lowest standing for more than 15 years. Nadal is No. 9, pretty much his humblest rank for 12 years.
Both rankings are injury-affected, of course. Both are on the comeback trail, but how soon? Tomas Berdych says Federer is so back that he’d rather have been watching him from the stands than playing him on Friday night. Nadal was never the irresistible force, but on Saturday’s showing, he was and might again be the immovable obstacle.
Now Murray might get one in a semi, the other in a final. In the meantime, on Sunday, he has Zverev’s older brother!