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I had a question ready to pose to Rafael Nadal at the Australian Open this year…


‘After 20 odd years on the tour, what is your overwhelming feeling when looking back at the Australian Open? Is it one of pride, from holding the trophy on two occasions? Or is it one of frustration and disappointment due to all constant injuries you’ve had here?’


Unfortunately, Rafa never made it to Melbourne this year, and I never got to ask him that question.


So I’ve decided to take a look back at Rafael Nadal’s history at the Australian Open. It’s one of ups and downs, but it’s worth remembering what he’s achieved here, and also what might have been.

Let’s go back to the start (it’s a long way back….)


2004: Round 3

Playing his first ever event, at the age of 17, and with a ranking of 41, Nadal would comfortably take care of his first two opponents, before pushing Australia’s, Lleyton Hewitt, who was ranked just outside the top ten, to three tight sets.

Hewitt knew what was coming…."He's a hell of a player. It was a lot tougher than I expected. I really had to raise my game."


2005: Round 4

Ranked 56 at the start of the tournament, it would again be Lleyton Hewitt who bundled him out. This time however, it was the 4th round, and over 5 very tight sets, having led two sets to one. Again, Hewitt had only good things to say about the young Spaniard…"He's going to be a tough player on any surface. He has a massive forehand and his backhand is definitely not a weakness. It's just not quite as strong."


2006: Did not play

At this stage, the 19 year old Nadal was ranked number two in the world, and would’ve fancied his chances of making a deep run. However, a foot injury forced him to withdraw.

"The Australian Open is too important a tournament for me to go to without having an option to win it," he said.


2007: Quarter-final

After knocking over a young Andy Murray, and Stan Wawrinka, Nadal went down unusually, without much fight in the quarter finals. His conqueror was eventual runner up, Fernando Gonzales, who was almost unstoppable during the fortnight, hitting balls like cannons. While often loose, when he was on song, he was hard to stop.

"He was playing at a very good level. It wasn't good for me," said Nadal. Understatement perhaps…?


2008: Semi-final

After barely raising a sweat for his first five matches, Nadal was upset in the semi-final by Frenchman, Jo-Wilfried Tsonga, in a manner and score-line that no-one expected. The 2-6 3-6 2-6 goes down as his heaviest loss in his Australian Open career, and Nadal had no excuses at all…"He played unbelievable. I thought I had been playing well enough to win the title but there was no way I could have beaten Tsonga tonight. His running was unbelievable and physically he was very explosive. Everything. What can I say?"


2009: Champion

The year of redemption, and perhaps the greatest back-to-back matches we’ve seen at the tournament. Rafa blitzed through the first 5 matches, including a straight sets win over Fernando Gonzales…revenge for 2007.

But this year will be remembered firstly for what happened in the semi-final against compatriot, Fernando Verdasco. In what was at the time, the longest match in tournament history, at 5 hours and 14 minutes, some of the tennis played will be etched into the DNA of Rod Laver Arena.

Rafa himself summed it up best…

"Was very emotional today," Nadal said. "Well, was amazing match, no? Verdasco was playing unbelievable. Today was, yeah, one of these matches you gonna remember long time, no? Well, the emotion was big, because in the last game with the love-40, I start to cry. Was too much tension, no?"

Or maybe Verdacso summed it up best…

“I think it was unbelievable match. You know, we both played unbelievable. For sure, I will have this match in my mind all my life."

But that was only the semi-final. Nadal had to back up against a fresh Federer. And back it up he did. In a Herculean display of stamina, and mental toughness, Nadal took 5 sets to beat his great rival, in what was a comparatively quick, but no less spectacular, 4 and a half hour marathon. This loss was tough for Roger to take, which was evident in the ceremony…"Maybe I'll try later again I don't know. God it's killing me,", the Swiss said through teary eyes.

Nadal followed up with, "Well first of all, sorry for today," he said to Federer. "I really know how you feel right now. It’s really tough. Remember, you’re a great champion. You’re one of the best of history."

With this win, he became the first player to hold three majors on three different surfaces.


2010: Quarter-final

In what was Nadal’s self-proclaimed best season of his career, he won the French, Wimbledon, and the US. But the calendar slam was off the table after bowing out to Andy Murray in the quarter finals. Nadal had to retire in the third set, for the first time in his Grand Slam history, down 2 sets to love, and 3-0, with Murray clearly the better player. Only he knows if he carried the injury into the clash, or picked it up during the match. But either way, it was a disappointing end to his campaign.  "It was a similar thing that I had last year," Nadal said. "It was impossible to win the match."


2011: Quarter-final

This was the year Nadal was aiming for the ‘Rafa Slam’. He had the French, Wimbledon, and US Open in his back pocket, and was looking to Melbourne for the clean sweep. Losing only 23 games in his first 4 rounds, he entered the quarter final clash against compatriot, David Ferrer, as the overwhelming favourite.

However, things turned sour very quickly, with Nadal injuring his hamstring in just the second game of the match, and calling the trainer out on the next changeover. From there, it was clear the ‘Rafa Slam’ was out of reach, and although he fought until the end, Ferrer kept his composure, and comfortably won through to the semis 6-4 6-2 6-3.

While not wanting to openly discuss the injury, when pressed, Rafa commented, “I don’t have to tell you about what I felt on the court because I tried my best all the time,” he said. “But it is obvious that I didn’t feel at my best. I had a problem in the match, in the very beginning. After that, the match was almost over. So that’s what I can say.”

But he refused to quit early again, after the 2010 end to his tournament.

“I retire when I can’t run for the ball, that’s when I retire, but that was not the case,” said

Nadal, who said he did not like retirements in general.

“It’s much better to keep playing with the limitations you have,” Nadal said, “knowing that you have small chances but fighting until the end, and that’s it. And leaving with your head held high and with the feeling that you have done the right thing.”


2012: Runner-Up

Another year, another epic. This time, Nadal knocked over Roger Federer in the semi finals, ending the Swiss star’s 25 match winning streak. Rafa was into his fourth consecutive major final, and this time, it was the Serbian, Novak Djokovic standing in his way.

Just a few years earlier, Nadal had played in the longest match of the event’s history. This time around, he and Djokovic pushed their bodies even further, and for longer, recording a match time of 5 hours and 53 minutes.

However, this time it was Nadal on the losing end, despite being a break up in the fifth set. Djokovic was able to outlast him 5-7 6-4 6-2 6-7 7-5. There was no doubt, this loss hurt physically (neither player could stand during the ceremony), and mentally, yet he was still able to reflect on the occasion...

"This one was very special," he said. "But I really understand that was a really special match, and probably a match that's going to be in my mind not because I lost, no, because the way that we played."


2013: Did not play

Nadal was on the sidelines during the second half of 2013, due to knee tendonitis, and did not make it back in time to play the Australian Open, beginning his season in February.


2014: Runner-Up

Nadal had a stellar comeback season in 2013, and was in fine form during January in Melbourne dispatching quality players, such as Gael Monfils, Kei Nishikori, Grigor Dimitrov, and Roger Federer in the semi final (in straight sets).

His opponent in the final was another Swiss star. Although this time around, it was Stan Wawrinka, a man who, in 12 previous meetings, and never even won a set off the Spaniard.

Needless to say, Nadal was the overwhelming favourite. But sport is unpredictable. What was becoming far too predictable, was a Rafael Nadal injury at the Australian Open. This time, it was his back which appeared to give him problems, and forced him to receive treatment, on and off the court during the match. Wawrinka took full advantage of this, winning in four sets.

While gracious in defeat, there is no doubt, he would’ve been extremely frustrated at his bad luck down under.

"It is a tournament that I really had some troubles physically in my career and is something that is painful for me.

"But that's part of life. That's part of sport. It's not the end of the world. Is just another tough moment."

"The last thing that I wanted to do was retire. No, I hate to do that, especially in a final.

"It's not the moment to talk about that. It's the moment to congratulate Stan. He's playing unbelievable. He really deserved to win that title."

What probably hurt more, was the chatter around Nadal always having an injury excuse when losing. In fact he addressed this at a tournament a few years earlier, saying, “Today I have another problem,” he said. “Seems like I always have problems when I lose, and I don’t want to have this image, no?”


2015: Quarter-Finals

The 2015 tournament wasn’t one of Rafa’s finest. He was coming back from some more time off, and had only played a handful of matches in the 6 months prior. He looked far from convincing early in the tournament, needing 5 sets to battle past world number 112, Tim Smyczek. However, he managed to get through to the quarter finals, where he came up against Czech, Tomas Berdych, whom Nadal held an extraordinary record of 17-0.

But nobody beats Berdych 18 times in a row. Tomas comprehensively outplayed Nadal on this day, earning a straight sets win, and a path through to the semi-final.


2016: Round 1

In a reprise of their stunning semi-final from 7 years earlier, the round 1 match-up of Fernando Verdasco and Rafael Nadal, was tantalising. While Verdasco had dropped down the rankings, and had only won 2 of their 16 matches against each other, he was able to wind back the clock, and play some of the best tennis of his career in the deciding 5th set. "I played unbelievably in the fifth set," said Verdasco, 32. "I don't know how I did it. I closed my eyes and everything went in."

For Nadal, this would be his earliest exit at the Australian Open of his career.


2017: Runner-Up

Going into the tournament ranked 9th, Nadal took out former finalist, Marcos Baghdatis in round two, then knocked over Alexander Zverev in 5 sets, Gael Monfils in 4, Milos Raonic in straight sets, before an epic semi-final against Bulgarian, Grigor Dimitrov. In a match that lasted just under 5 hours, it again became a question of whether Rafa had any petrol tickets left for the final against old foe, Roger Federer.

In the 35th meeting of the two giants, the final did not disappoint. The champions exchanged sets, before stepping it up a notch in the 5th set. Unfortunately for Nadal, Federer was just too good on the night, winning in a 5 set classic, 6-4 3-6 6-1 3-6 6-3, and he made comment which suggested exactly this, “There is a winner, there is a loser,” the ever-philosophical Nadal said. “In these kinds of matches, anyone can win...Today he beat me. Just congratulate him.”


2018: Quarter-final

Another Australian summer, another injury for the Mallorcan. Before the event began, Nadal pulled out of three events, Abu Dhabi, Brisbane, and a Fast 4 Showdown event in Sydney. Things were already looking grim for Rafa fans. Fortunately, he was able to get to the start line in Melbourne, and with a fairly favourable draw, reached the quarter finals without being fully tested.

Awaiting him in the final 8, was Croatian Marin Cilic, ranked 6 at the time. Nadal took a 2 sets to one lead, in a high quality affair, but was obviously hampered by a hip injury during the 4th set, which led to him retiring for just the second time in a Grand Slam match (the first was against Murray in 2010), down 0-2 in the 5th.

After the match, Nadal stressed the importance of looking after player health, "Somebody who is running the tour should think little bit about what's going on," he said. "Too many people are getting injured.

"I don't know if they have to think a little bit about the health of the players. Not for now that we are playing, but there is life after tennis.

"I don't know if we keep playing in this very, very hard surfaces what's going to happen in the future with our lives."


2019: Runner-Up

Nadal started the tournament by dispatching 3 Aussies in a row, followed by Tomas Berdych, Frances Tiafoe, and Stefanos Tsitsipas in the semi finals. In fact, he was so dominant, he hadn’t dropped a set, and had only been taken to one tie-break. Ranked number 2 at the time, only one person stood before him and the trophy….the number 1 player, Novak Djokovic.

Novak had won 12 of the previous 15 clashes, and was the favourite going in. But I think it’s fair to say that no-one expected such a dominant display from the Serb. Rafa (and even the paying spectators) looked like a deer in the headlights at times, as Novak put on an absolute tennis masterclass, to defeat his rival 6-3 6-2 6-3.

Nadal said, "Even though tonight was not my night, it was very important for me in coming back from injury," he said.

"I believe I played a good two weeks of tennis and it is a great energy and inspiration for what is coming.

"I will keep fighting and keep practising to give myself better chances in the future."

While Nadal tried to be positive, it was clear who the number one player in the world was now.


2020: Quarter-final

By the time 2020 rolled around, Nadal had wrestled back the number 1 position, and flew through the opening 3 rounds in fine style, before knocking over Nick Kyrgios in a hard fought fourth round. A meeting in the quarter final with Dominic Thiem awaited, whom Nadal had beaten in the previous 2 French Open deciders. But hardcourts are a different beast. In a 4 hour and 10 minute thriller, the Austrian prevailed 7-6 7-6 4-6 7-6, overpowering Nadal with his heavy groundstokes, sending the Spaniard home early once again.

"He has a lot of power, so he's able to produce these amazing shots from a very difficult position.", Nadal reflected after the match.


2021: Quarter-final

As had been the case in many years past, Nadal had no trouble winning through the opening rounds, taking out 12 straight sets on the way to a quarter final match up against Greek star, Stefanos Tsitsipas. Everything seemed to be going to plan for the Nadal camp, as he took the first two sets, 6-3 6-2. But the Greek wasn’t done yet, and fought for over 4 hours to win the next three sets 7-6 6-4 7-5, again, stopping Nadal at the quarter final stage for the 7thtime in his career. Nadal had no excuses for the disappointing loss…

"I can't find a lot of excuses or reasons," said Nadal, whose only triumph in Melbourne came in 2009.

"It was a little bit of everything. I missed a couple of balls in the tie-break that I could not miss if I want to win. And that's it.

"I should be ready to play four hours. I think my physical shape holds up quite well.


2022: Champion

With his number one rival, Novak Djokovic, fighting the Australian Border police due to Covid restrictions, the draw opened up for many, including Nadal. However, even the staunchest of Rafa fans probably didn’t foresee what lay ahead.

As expected, Rafa cruised through the opening rounds, losing just one set to Karen Khachanov in the opening 4 rounds. He was pushed to 5 by Denis Shapovalov in the quarter-finals, and overcame Matteo Berrettini in the semis.

For the final, it was Russian, Daniil Medvedev, the world number 2, and top seed for the event. Daniil looked every bit the top seed in the opening two sets, racing to a 6-2 7-6 lead, and looking like he would avenge his loss in the final from the previous year to Djokovic.

But Nadal being Nadal, he had different ideas, and stormed home to win the next three sets, 6-4 6-4 6-4, to win his 21st major title, seemingly in total shock as he realized his achievement.

"I just wanted to keep believing until the end to give me a chance and that's what I did," Nadal said.

"It means a lot to me and I know it's a special number 21 and I know what it means, its significance.

"I don't care much about history, I enjoy nights like this that means everything to me, it's important to get my second Australian Open more than anything else."


2023: Round 2

A disaster event for Nadal, hoping to defend his title, bowing out in the second round to American, Mackenzie McDonald, 4-6 4-6 5-7, clearly hampered by a hip injury.

Nadal said the hip had bothered him for a couple of days but nowhere near to the extent of Wednesday's match.

"I don't know what's going on, if it's muscle, if it's (the) joint,"

"I have a history (of) hip issues. I had to do treatments in the past, address it a little. (It) was not this amount of problem. Now I feel I cannot move." The injury would derail the whole of the 2023 season.


2024: Withdrawn

Now in 2024, after a year off from that hip injury, everything seemed on track following a couple of strong wins in Brisbane. However, that gruelling three setter against Jordan Thompson, put an end to any hope of seeing him in Melbourne this year. And perhaps forever, at least as a player.


So what do we make of Nadal’s history at Melbourne Park? Is it one of triumph? Is it sadness? Is it missed opportunities?

In fairness, it’s probably a little bit of everything, and probably only Rafa can answer the question.


Hopefully I get another chance to ask it in 2025….

But if not…it’s been one heck of a ride as a spectator!

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