Rafael Nadal made his third straight final in 2022 as he defeated British player and world No. 12 Cameron Norrie in the final of the Abierto Mexicano Telcel presentado por HSBC in Acapulco, Mexico on Saturday, Feb. 26. The Spaniard now sits at a stunning 15–0 record in 2022, his best opening record to a season since he began 2014 with 11 straight wins.
Although Nadal, who is currently ranked No. 4 on the ATP tour, did not face much trouble against his first three opponents in Acapulco—Denis Kudla, Stefan Kozlov, and Tommy Paul—getting past all of them in straight sets, the rest of his path to the final was not simple. His semi-final match set him up against Daniil Medvedev, who was recently crowned as the new world No. 1 in the ATP rankings. This matchup was a rematch of the historic Australian Open final at the end of January, where Nadal managed to overcome a two sets to love deficit and became the first male player to win 21 Grand Slam titles, surpassing rivals Roger Federer and Novak Djokovic for the first time.
In this semi-final against Medvedev at Acapulco, Nadal saved all 11 of the 11 break points he faced during the match, sealing the victory with a 6–3, 6–3 score and extending the Spaniard’s head-to-head record against Medvedev to 5–1. Nadal then went on to face Norrie in the final, looking solid throughout as he ultimately took the match in a 6–4, 6–4 victory.
With the sealing of his fourth Acapulco title, which Nadal did without dropping a set throughout the tournament, he earned his 91st career title. Incredibly, his fourth time winning the tournament came 17 years after he first won an Acapulco title in 2005. He now holds the records for being both the youngest player to win the tournament at 18 years old in 2005, and the oldest player to win the tournament at 35 years old this year.
Many did not expect Nadal to have a long career due to his aggressive style of play and seemingly unrelenting energy to chase down every ball in his younger years. Yet Nadal’s longevity, like that of his long-time rival and friend Federer, becomes increasingly more impressive every year. As it becomes clearer that Nadal, Federer, and current world No. 2 Djokovic will not be disappearing from the tennis court anytime soon, the “Next Gen” of men’s tennis have continued scrambling for answers to the “Big 3” to no avail.
The long history of injuries that have plagued Nadal’s career makes his performances so far this year even more impressive. Very few would have expected Nadal to continue winning titles at 35, much less any majors, and especially not the Australian Open, which has more often than not been a tournament filled with difficulties for Nadal.
Heading into the Australian Open, Nadal was coming off the back of winning the Melbourne Summer Set, which gave him the chance to readjust to being back on the tour after taking the last months of 2021 off to recover from injury. While he seemed to be recovering, expectations for his performance at the Australian Open were low given the tough draw he was projected to face. However, Nadal made it through each round of the tournament the way he has always played tennis: powered by perseverance, clever shot-making, and an unrelenting will to fight. The incredible tenacity that has always been a unique marker of Nadal as a player was on full display in the final against Medvedev as he somehow fought back to earn his 21st major title and win a match after losing the first two sets for the first time since 2007.
Nadal’s incredible start to this season has been strikingly reminiscent to the way that the 2017 season went for his long-time rival Federer. The Swiss player had faced a string of difficulties throughout the 2016 season due to a knee injury and subsequent time off the court to recover from surgery, which saw his ranking slip to No. 17 as he entered 2017. However, at the 2017 Australian Open, Federer somehow made his way through the draw to face Nadal in the final, resulting in a gripping five-set match that ended with Federer claiming his 18th Grand Slam title.
Federer then went on to an incredible win streak in a seeming renaissance that was highlighted by a record eighth men’s singles title at Wimbledon. The latter half of the year also saw Federer and Nadal play doubles together for the first time at the inaugural Laver Cup, working together to seal the eventual victory for Team Europe.
Unfortunately, the past few years have not been as easy for the Swiss player: Federer has not been back on the ATP tour since Wimbledon 2021, when he announced after the tournament that he would be off the court for many months due to knee surgery. While it may take some time before Federer returns to competitive form, he and Nadal are scheduled to play as a doubles pair for Team Europe again at the upcoming 2022 Laver Cup in London, which will run from Friday, Sept. 23 to Sunday, Sept 25.
Before then, though, Nadal is expected to play the BNP Paribas Open in Indian Wells, California, which will run from Thursday, March 10 to Sunday, March 20. Indian Wells will kick off the first of the two American tournaments played on outdoor hardcourts—the BNP Paribas Open and the Miami Open—before the tour heads to Europe for the clay swing.
Of course, the biggest tournament Nadal supporters can look forward to in the coming months is the 2022 French Open, which will be held from Sunday, May 22 to Sunday, June 5 in Paris, France. This year’s Roland Garros will give Nadal, who is recognized as the best clay court player in history, the chance to fight for a record-extending 14th title in Paris. The French Open could also be Nadal’s chance to extend his record of the most men’s singles Grand Slam titles to 22, strengthening his reputation as the GOAT of men’s tennis.
While Nadal’s notoriously anti-vaccine rival Djokovic may now be allowed to play at Roland Garros after the French government recently announced that the country would no longer require proof of a COVID-19 vaccine to enter indoor establishments, Nadal seems to be on an unstoppable streak. Djokovic will also be unable to play at Indian Wells or the Miami Open before the tour heads to the clay court swing, as he remains the only unvaccinated men’s singles player in the top 100 on the ATP Tour. Though Djokovic may try to do whatever possible to play in Paris and defend his 2021 French Open title, it appears that nothing can stop Nadal for now.
Jiyu Shin can be reached at email@example.com.