Rafael Nadal survived stomach trouble and a time-keeping controversy to reach the last four of the Australian Open in thrilling style.
In the aftermath of his four-hour, five-set victory over Denis Shapovalov, Nadal told the crowd on Rod Laver Arena that “I was completely destroyed. I am not 21 anymore. But I believe I will be ready for the semi-finals.”
Shapovalov – the 22-year-old Canadian left-hander – had produced some sparkling tennis through the middle of this Australian Open classic. But he also lost his way in the closing stages of his eventual 6-3, 6-4, 4-6, 3-6, 6-3 defeat, which must also go down as one of the hardest earned wins of Nadal’s career.
And the drama was not all about forehands and backhands. Shapovalov – who hurled his racket into the court at the conclusion of the match – had earlier challenged chair umpire Carlos Bernardes, asking him why he wasn’t handing more time-violation penalties to Nadal, and suggesting that he was “corrupt”.
This was a confrontational way to approach the match, and did at least suggest that Shapovalov was not here to play the patsy. But when it came to the deciding set, he suffered a critical failure of nerve. He donated an early break with a series of panicky errors, and never managed to rediscover his inner satnav, despite a series of opportunities.
Nadal was so knackered by this stage of the contest that, when he was receiving serve, he simply struck the return and then stood stock still, reluctant to waste a spare gram of energy on games he did not need to win.
He knew that all he had to do was to avoid being broken himself. And he showed all his renowned emotional and mental fortitude to bang down some powerful serves, despite his exhausted state.
To return to the controversy over slow play, the first of two heated conversations broke out at the beginning of the second set. Shapovalov – who was waiting to serve – marched up to Bernardes to say “You started the shot-clock 45 seconds ago and he’s still not ready to play. You gotta code him.“
One code violation for delay of game counts as a warning; a second costs the recipient a point or a first serve, depending on whether he is serving or receiving at the time.
Shapovalov seemed to be about to drop the issue, but then he began again. “He’s not ready to play! Are you kidding me? You guys are all corrupt!” Bernardes made no response at the time, but this was an unusually forceful outburst, and could well earn Shapovalov a fine for impugning the probity of an official.
Then, one game later, Shapovalov held up a hand as Nadal was preparing to serve. He thought that the 25-second shot-clock – which the umpire sets in motion when he calls the score – had run down to zero before Nadal was ready. But he must have misread the digital display, because Nadal actually had eight seconds left before he needed to throw the ball up.
Bernardes looked especially annoyed this time. “There’s eight seconds to play,” he said. “What do you want? Why you look at me?” Nadal then came forward to the net to speak to Shapovalov directly – an unusual sight in a professional tennis match. While it seemed that Shapovalov was doing all the talking, and trying to explain his outbursts, there was no microphone close enough to pick up the conversation.
Shapovalov settled down at this point, and the match continued without further umpiring drama until the fourth set. This time, the shot clock really did run down to zero before Nadal was ready to serve. Bernardes gave him a time-violation warning, whereupon Nadal promptly double-faulted to concede a crucial break, putting Shapovalov on the road to levelling the match at two sets all.
Soon after this, Nadal called the trainer and doctor to the court to treat a stomach problem, which looked to be restricting his movement and energy. He took some pills to deal with the issue, but the momentum of the match was increasingly swinging behind Shapovalov. Soon before 6pm, Nadal left the court for more treatment with the match tied at two symmetrical sets all: 6-3, 6-4, 4-6, 3-6.
As Nadal claimed a second medical evaluation, followed by a toilet break, Shapovalov complained to Bernardes again, saying “When I tried to do that at a different tournament they didn’t let me.” Nadal was off the court for six-and-a-half minutes before he returned, with his mind focused on avoiding what would only have been his third defeat in major tournaments after holding a two-set lead.
“I started to feel not very well in my stomach,” said Nadal during his on-court interview with Jim Courier after the match.
“I went inside [and] they checked my body.”
It is hard to imagine anyone else pulling out a victory from this position, but Nadal was up to the task. Now he does at least have the opportunity of two free days to recover, as this year’s Australian Open schedule has been rejigged so that the men’s semi-finals will both be played on Friday.
But the fact that Nadal had bot practised ahead of this quarter-final, as he admitted to Courier, suggests that his body is feeling the strain of playing five grand-slam matches after a long injury lay-off at the end of last year.
The identity of his next opponent – either veteran Frenchman Gael Monfils or last year’s Wimbledon runner-up Matteo Berrettini – will be decided later on Tuesday.