Rafael Nadal won a tiebreak for the ages to make quarterfinal history at Australian Open 2022.
Nadal beat Adrian Mannarino 7-6(14) 6-2 6-2 on Sunday for a 14th quarterfinal at the Australian Open, joint second alongside John Newcombe. Only Roger Federer has achieved more in the men's game.
Federer returned from an injury nightmare to overcome Nadal in a classic 2017 final at Melbourne Park. Could Nadal emulate the Swiss following foot issues that limited him to a mere two matches in 2021 after Roland Garros?
Federer's title came aged 35 … which just happens to Nadal's current age.
There remains considerable work remaining for Nadal – who will next play Denis Shapovalov – but if he does go all the way, Grand Slam title No.21 and going one clear of Federer and Novak Djokovic is the reward.
Nadal raised his arms after an ace on match point, but the afternoon contest at Rod Laver Arena as Melbourne's heatwave ensued was realistically settled in the half-hour tiebreak.
Nadal almost didn't get there, however.
In a set of amazing quality, Nadal became the first to drop a point behind first serve at 5-5, his forehand near the net finding the net with the Frenchman stranded.
It contributed to the lone break point of the opener, saved when a Nadal first serve prompted a return miscue. "Si," the 2009 winner replied.
Then came the tiebreak, and oh, what a tiebreak, the longest in points of Nadal’s career.
Nadal tallied the first three set points before eventually needing seven to put his fellow lefty away. He saved four of his own.
"First set was very, very emotional," Nadal said in his on-court interview.
"Anything could happen there. I was a little bit lucky at the end. I had my chances, but then he had a lot of chances, too.
"His ball was very difficult to control, very fast and flat and I am very happy I survived that first set."
Mannarino's ability to take the ball early, slapping away, already flummoxed Hubert Hurkacz and Aslan Karatsev this week – accounting for the first time the 32-year-old beat a pair of top-20 players at the same tournament.
Nadal lacked many opportunities to dictate with his forehand but did so at 2-4, ripping away with success.
And when Nadal engineered one of his trademark forehand passing shots on the stretch for 6-4 – yes, a windmill fist pump followed – the set seemingly was his.
Yet the world No.69 didn't back down.
Nadal's second serve forehand return long at 6-5 might have been unusual, but kept with his current philosophy of attempting to be more aggressive.
Mannarino wrong footed Nadal at 7-7 to earn a first set point, subsequently unlucky to see his second-serve return only slightly miss the mark.
They alternated producing brilliant strikes under pressure, Mannarino authoring a forehand cross court to evade a fourth set point.
Down a second set point, Nadal — for the first time in the set — opted for a drop shot. Mannarino got there but Nadal poked his reply into the open space.
The first sign of physical distress for Mannarino — whose bruising four-hour, third-round contest against Karatsev finished at about 2.30am on Saturday — ensued as he tested his knee.
Back and forth they went to the crowd's delight until Nadal sealed matters with some luck at 15-14. His forehand return clipped the top of the tape, temporarily puzzling Mannarino.
Mannarino responded with an impressive angled forehand to drag Nadal wide prior to a scooped pickup from Nadal. The latter reacted quickly again to crunch a forehand that was too hot to handle for Mannarino at the net.
Nadal broke to start the second and one sensed the match was done, especially since the trainer visited Mannarino at 2-5 for what appeared to be a groin issue.
"Everybody knows how mental this game is," said Nadal.
"It's a tough one and after that crazy first, I think it was so important, the break at the beginning of the second."
He moved into the last eight once again.
"It's true that I have been a little bit unlucky with injuries here during all my career and sometimes I was unlucky because the opponents were better than me," laughed Nadal.
"But in general terms I always enjoyed very, very emotional matches here, so I'm very, very happy to be back in the quarterfinals. It means a lot to me."