There’s nothing like a comeback from two sets down, and there’s almost no precedent for it when the person holding those two sets is Rafael Nadal, the consummate closer. Of the 246 career matches where Rafa won the first two sets in a best-of-five format, he wound up winning 243.
The first of those three losses was at the hands of Roger Federer in the final at the 2005 Miami Open. To carbon-date this ancient history, afterward Fed said, “Today I saw the danger Nadal represents.” If only he knew! The second loss, and only previous instance at a major, was an infamous tangle with slippery noodle Fabio Fognini at the 2015 U.S. Open. That one was a classic, and its echoes raised expectations for their fourth-round meeting at this year’s Australian Open. Instead, Rafa cruised in three sets.
In fact, Nadal had won 35 straight sets in majors as he headed into the third-set tiebreak on Wednesday against Stefanos Tsitsipas, before the young Greek turned around their quarterfinal and became the third entry in this odd and illustrious list. Tsitsipas won 3-6, 2-6, 7-6(4), 6-4, 7-5 in four hours and five minutes of battle.
How did Tsitsipas reverse the match’s tide after two sets of technically flawless tennis from the No. 2 seed? By following the time-tested Furtado Method. “I started very nervous, I won’t lie,” the No. 5 seed said after the match. “I don’t know what happened after the third set—I just flied like a little bird.”
Several factors worked in Tsitsipas’s favor. He came off four days of rest after Matteo Berrettini withdrew from their fourth-round match with an abdominal issue, the injury du jour this Open. In any match that crosses the four-hour mark, it also helps to be 22 years young and healthy, as opposed to 34 and coming into the tournament with a lower back injury, as Nadal was. Tsitsipas can also thank the slew of uncharacteristic Nadal errors in the third-set tiebreak—including two blown overhead smashes, by one of the sport’s most consistent overhead smashers—which left the door ajar. “I missed a couple of balls in the tiebreak that I could not miss if I want to win,” said Nadal in the post-match presser.
Tsitsipas was asked what he changed on his end:
The thing is that I wasn’t really thinking about a lot of things. Nothing was going through my head. Nirvana. Just, like, there. Playing, not thinking. I was thinking a little bit, but I was mostly focused on each single serve, each single shot.
At the very third set, I changed a few things. I changed my patterns, I took a little more time, that might’ve helped. I wanted to stay on the court a little longer. These things kept adding up. I think they changed the pace, the rhythm.
The sets did balloon as Tsitsipas eased his way back into the match: 37 minutes, 41 minutes, 54 minutes, 57 minutes, 56 minutes. After a first set in which exactly a quarter of points played ended in a Tsitsipas unforced error, the Greek smoothed out the inconsistencies in his shot-making, and Nadal, who described himself as fine but “not fantastic” physically, seemed to lose a step in the rallies over time. Tsitsipas found his rhythm as Nadal’s faltered. In the first two sets, Tsitsipas lost the rallies longer than five shots, 14-21; across the last three sets, he went up, 46-33. Historically, Nadal had dominated the matchup, losing only once in seven tries (and on clay, somehow). Stylistically, though, Tsitsipas’s ability to finish points all over the court, press the tiniest advantages, and handle high balls to his backhand gives him a reasonable shot at the king, and he finally came through on a hard court.
Tsitsipas’s last two majors ended in mildly traumatic five-set fashion, with a collapse for the ages against Borna Coric at the U.S. Open after six match points, and an unconsummated comeback against Novak Djokovic at the French Open. These two five-set wins in Australia should restore his confidence that he can go the distance. He’ll still be lucky if he survives his semifinal opponent, Daniil Medvedev, who is on a 19-match winning streak, but no matter his fate, Tsitsipas is guaranteed to leave Australia as the answer to an obscure but deeply impressive bit of tennis trivia.