For four hours and five minutes on Rod Laver Arena, Stefanos Tsitsipas barely said a word. After spending so much of his young career releasing his tension on tennis courts by venting to his father and his team, it was a conspicuous decision as Rafael Nadal laid waste to him for two sets in a grand slam quarter-final.
But rather than the understandable sign of resignation that some assumed it to be, it was instead a reflection of the greatest mental performance of his life. He recovered from losing two one-sided sets at the Australian Open to defeat Rafael Nadal 3-6, 2-6, 7-6 (4), 6-4, 7-5 to reach the semi-finals. He became just the second player to recover from two sets down to beat Nadal in a grand slam tournament.
In the end, Tsitsipas was as fascinated as any spectator by his temperament. “The thing is that I wasn’t really thinking of a lot of things,” he said. “Nothing was going through my head. How would I describe myself? Nirvana. Just, like, there. Playing, not thinking. I was thinking a little bit, but I was mainly thinking of each single serve, each single shot.
“I brainstormed and said: ‘What is going wrong, why is it not working my way?’ But then it just took off by itself. I didn’t really have too much to think of. I played more flawless. I really didn’t care, honestly. I played with no care and that increased the level of tennis that I put out there.”
Nadal acknowledged afterwards that his preparation had not been ideal, his withdrawal from the ATP Cup because of a back injury meant he was “not fantastic” physically and he was not enamoured with the humidity, but he praised his opponent.
“I am playing against one of the best players of the world, so you always have to expect the best from the opponent, and be ready for anything,” said Nadal. “I think he changed a lot the level. I think in the third he already started to play much better. Then in the fourth and fifth he played a very, very high level of tennis. Just well done for him.
“I made a couple of mistakes – was not enough for me, and I have to go back home and practise to be better.”
Eighty minutes into the match, anything but a convincing Nadal win seemed like a pipe dream. He worked his way into the match with a faultless display. He moved further from the baseline and smothered Tsitsipas on his serve.
Tsitsipas was not only facing an all-time great player in full flight but also a player who has historically relished how the Greek’s game slots seamlessly into his own. By the time the score read 6-3, 6-2, Nadal had flitted through a run that included five successive games. Tsitsipas had failed to generate a break point and he began to bail out of points with helpless, low-percentage, down-the-line blows after being dragged around the court.
Throughout the third set Tsitsipas maintained control of his serve. In the tie-break Nadal began to unravel. He missed two overheads, hit a mid-court forehand into the net and then shanked a backhand, eventually conceding the tie-break 7-4.
Momentum is the unseen force in tennis and it is so hard to fight against it. In the end, once it shifted, Nadal could not get it back. Aided by the cooler conditions that negated Nadal’s high-bouncing topspin, Tsitsipas took control. He served emphatically, and began to dominate the cross-court exchanges with Nadal’s backhand.
Tsitsipas took the definitive break on Nadal’s third deuce game of the set at 4-4, with the Spaniard firing two consecutive forehand errors.
As the fifth set wore on, Tsitsipas looked as physically robust as Nadal looked fatigued. He crushed outrageous, deadly running forehands. He held serve at 3-2 with four aces in 54 seconds. By 4-3, his side of the court was raining running down-the-line forehand winners as the stroke averaged an absurd 83mph.
He did everything he could to put unrelenting pressure on Nadal to keep up, who finally folded at 5-5 in the fifth. Shortly after, Tsitsipas wrapped up the biggest victory of his career, with the promise of so much more to come.
He will now face the fourth seed, Daniil Medvedev, an old and often bitter rival, in the semi-final after the Russian’s 7-5, 6-3, 6-2, win against his countryman Andrey Rublev. Opportunity abounds for all involved.
“It was epic,” said Tsitsipas. “It was everything I ever dreamed of, and I’m glad that I am where I am today. There is obviously light ahead at the end of the tunnel, and there is plenty more to go.”