Stefanos Tsitsipas pulled off an astonishing and near unprecedented comeback at the Australian Open, knocking off Rafael Nadal to reach the semifinals.
The Greek star appeared well on his way out after tamely losing the first two sets, but then rallied for a gritty 3-6 2-6 7-6(4) 6-4 7-5 victory at Rod Laver Arena.
The epic contest lasted close to four hours but it is no stretch to say one shot might have turned things around — Nadal incredibly dumping an overhead long at 1-0 in the third-set tiebreak.
Tsitsipas only faced one break point in the final three sets — in the last game — as he became just the second man to top Nadal at a Grand Slam after losing the first two sets.
The other one? The player Nadal defeated in the last round, Fabio Fognini, at the 2015 US Open.
“I’m speechless,” Tsitsipas said on court. “I have no words to describe what just happened. It’s an unbelievable feeling to be able to fight at such a level and just be able to give it my all on the court.
“I started very nervous, I won’t lie, but I don’t know what happened after the third set. I just flied like a little bird, everything was working for me. The emotions at the end are indescribable.”
Nadal hadn’t relinquished a set prior to Wednesday’s quarterfinal and claimed 35 consecutive sets at majors prior to Tsitsipas’ huge comeback.
Tsitsipas has now downed Nadal and Roger Federer (in 2019) at the Australian Open.
In the final three sets, Tsitsipas hit 36 winners and only 18 unforced errors. Nadal’s error tally climbed to 42 after making 10 combined in the first two sets.
Tsitsipas, 22, appeared to have the physical edge over the 34-year-old in the latter stages.
“Staying calm on court and holding my nerves is a very important element and having failed to do so in some of my matches, I think I would also give a big part of my win to that,” said Tsitsipas. “Be consistent with my mood and just stay calm in the crucial tight moments, that helped a lot.
“My mood was consistent. I was working a lot on trying to just keep everything to myself and it’s also something I’m really happy with, the attitude I showed on court.”
The world No.6’s reward is a clash with Russia’s Daniil Medvedev, sporting a 19-match winning streak. Medvedev leads Tsitsipas 5-1 in their head-to-heads, but then Nadal had a 6-1 edge over Tsitsipas.
Any fatigue Tsitsipas is feeling might be overcome by the jubilation of topping 20-time Grand Slam winner Nadal. Aiding him, too, might be receiving a walkover in the fourth round.
Speaking of birds, they watched above Rod Laver Arena with the best view around on a sticky night. Thankfully they will be joined by fans on Thursday, following the lifting of Melbourne’s lockdown. That is another element bound to help Tsitsipas given Melbourne’s large Greek community.
Those birds probably couldn’t believe Nadal’s overhead miscue – like the rest of us – in the tiebreak that lifted Tsitsipas.
In barely over an hour, Nadal had grabbed the previous two sets.
A largely uneventful first six games gave way to a pivotal seventh. Nadal trailed 0-30 before uncorking two huge serves to level. Then he sealed a 25-shot rally with a cross-court backhand winner.
In one of those two-game swings often seen in tennis, Tsitsipas dropped serve from 30-0 thanks in part to Nadal’s blistering backhand return winner.
Tsitsipas’ attempts to be aggressive early in rallies hardly paid off. In the first set, both men hit seven winners. Nadal, though, made a mere five unforced errors compared to Tsitsipas’ 12.
Nadal delivered a forehand winner to break in the first game of the second and at 3-1, engineered two trademark passing shots back-to-back on the way to a double break lead.
His swatted forehand cross-court on the back foot near the first row was followed by a backhand laser cross court that clipped the net.
To Tsitsipas’ credit, he dug in. Rallies became extended and his first serve began cooperating.
Neither player faced a break point and so the tiebreak ensued.
Considered to have one of the top smashes ever, Nadal dumped that overhead long as he stood virtually on top of the net.
He is considered one of the mentally toughest players in history, but even Nadal became unhinged.
Tsitsipas was somehow level at 2-2 instead of behind 4-0. At 3-3, Nadal missed another overhead long, though this time it was more difficult, struck on the baseline.
Making five unforced errors in each of the first two sets, Nadal committed five in the tiebreak alone.
Creaking, Nadal saved a break point — with an overhead — to start the fourth and saved two more at 2-2 with two unreturnables. A second-serve ace at deuce saw Nadal escape once again, for 4-3.
Chances, chances for Tsitsipas and he finally took one at 4-4 to break for the first time. A sickener for Nadal, who overcame a 0-30 deficit to earn three game points, sending a forehand sitter long on the last one.
Tsitsipas thus inched closer to matching Fognini.
Nadal went forward in the fifth set as he tried to unsettle a now red-hot Tsitsipas, who was now into his rhythm. Tsitsipas looked the fresher of the two.
Despite serving second in the set, Tsitsipas bravely didn’t flinch.
That included when he served to stay in the match for the first time at 4-5, zipping a cross-court forehand to level at 5-5.
Tsitsipas duly broke to love, but Nadal carved out one more opportunity after fending off two match points. Tsitsipas, however, saved the break point with a rocketed serve out wide and converted on match point No.3 with a backhand laser down the line.
Tsitsipas rallied from two sets down against Novak Djokovic in the French Open semifinals in October but fell short in the fifth set. On Wednesday, he wouldn’t be denied.