It’s normal to believe in some form of magic, or at least to want to. It’s an easy thing to believe, and we can see it manifest in whatever form we choose, whether it’s God, or some other kind of cosmic order, or simply the improbable outcomes that are occasionally produced by randomly sequenced events.
Magic can be a man in shiny lapels pulling a rabbit out of a top hat, or a body performing outrageous feats of flexibility and strength, or electricity, or cinema, or space travel, or nature, or humans connecting with each other from opposite ends of the globe, or the very fact of our existence. Magic is that which undermines our understanding of what is or should be possible. And even for those who feel deep down that there really are no miracles – that only what can happen does happen – it’s still helpful to have a shorthand for the things we can’t really comprehend or explain.
It comes in handy for times like this, because magic is about the only way to explain what’s transpired at this year’s Australian Open. The kind of magic that worked through the racket of a 117th-ranked wild card to topple the world No. 2 and six-time champ in the second round. The kind that cast a spell on a serve-and-volleying journeyman, so that he clipped the corners of the service box, and glided to the net as if drawn by a magnetic force, and stab-volleyed his way to a stunning upset of the world No. 1. The kind that’s revived a presumed-dead champion after a six-month hiatus and catapulted him to the precipice of a title he’s been chasing for nearly five years. The kind that’s possessed a 36-year-old to reach her first major final in nearly eight years and drawn her 35-year-old sister into the final alongside her, the latter with a chance to definitively establish herself as the most prolific Grand Slam champion of all time.
This isn’t meant to strip those players of their agency; they still had to make all this happen, and the credit is all theirs. But taken all together, it’s hard to deny that exceptional circumstances have conspired to create something timeless at this event. And if there were any doubt that there’s something in the air in Melbourne, Rafael Nadal and Grigor Dimitrov laid it to rest in their semifinal Friday, when they did justice to everything that came before and played the match of the tournament.
Has anyone been a part of as many epic matches as Nadal has? For well over a decade, the relentless Spaniard has been dragging opponents through the muck, forcing them to run a few extra steps, hit a few more balls, play longer points, longer games, match after match. On Rod Laver Arena alone, he’d had his five-set, five-hour win over Fernando Verdasco in the 2009 semis, his subsequent five-set win over Roger Federer in that year’s final, and his near six-hour saga in the 2012 final against Novak Djokovic. With the titanic battle against Dimitrov, he added another to the ledger.
For five hypnotic hours, the two of them steadily pushed each other, further and further past what ought to have been their limits, to greater and greater heights. Their tennis was sometimes scratchy, but more often fluid; often nervy, but more often brave. It was never anything but gripping. As Venus Williams would say, it was triumph and disaster witnessed in real time.
There was Nadal’s master class of a first set; the teeter-totter of breaks and rebreaks in the second; the two extraordinary, criss-crossing points Nadal won to take the third-set tiebreaker; the conviction with which Dimitrov came to the net to win the breaker-clinching points in the fourth; the multiple break points both men saved early in the nausea-inducing fifth.
There was Dimitrov, answering virtually every question about his mental toughness, refusing to go away despite playing from behind for nearly the entire match; Dimitrov, of the oft-sketchy backhand, opening up the court and cracking down-the-line winners off that wing; Dimitrov, once known for his fragility, laying body and soul on the line, defending to all courts and digging balls deep out of the corners.
And finally, there was Nadal doing Nadal, that thing he’d seemingly forgotten how to do during the two-plus year lull that saw him shrink in big moments and lose three straight five-set matches. There were certainly some dodgy moments for him in this final set, points in which he couldn’t get any depth on his shots – as so often happens when a player gets tight. But serving at 3-4, facing double-break point, one mishit away from giving his opponent a chance to serve for the match, Nadal went for broke and pulled out the service hold of his life.
At 15-40, standing right on top of the baseline, he crouched low to dig out a deep Dimitrov forehand, and when the reply came floating back to the middle of the court, Nadal stepped up and blasted a backhand winner down the line. On break point No. 2, he stretched Dimitrov with a wicked down-the-line forehand, moved in behind it, and knocked a volley into the open court. At deuce, he countered Dimitrov’s beautifully placed slice return to the corner by ripping a runaround inside-in forehand, then moved forward again, and again closed it with a volley. On his ad point, he executed a one-two punch with a sliding serve out wide followed by a cross-court backhand that Dimitrov ran down but couldn’t return. Game.
Those weren’t missed opportunities for Dimitrov, they were opportunities Nadal snuffed out. And though it only leveled the set at four games apiece, you could smell the break coming on Dimitrov’s ensuing service game. And though the resurgent Bulgarian conjured some steely brilliance of his own to save two match points, Nadal finally got his nose across the finish line. On the match’s 365th point, in its 296th minute, Dimitrov sent a forehand long, Nadal collapsed face-first on the blue Plexicushion, and then it was real.
Nadal will play Federer in the Australian Open final, reigniting the sport’s most romanticized rivalry just as it seemed it had gone dormant for good. On the women’s side, another storied rivalry will get an unexpected new chapter, as Serena Williams and Venus square off in a major final for the first time this decade. The last time these four all played in the finals at the same Slam was at Wimbledon in 2008, back when Nadal wore his hair shoulder-length, his shorts shin-length, and his shirts sleeveless. But here they are, all in their 30s, all having stared at some point into the void, still playing, still standing.
Maybe it’s naive to pretend any of this really matters, when outside the window the world feels like it’s devolving into chaos. But it helps to be reminded that there is room for joy in all the madness, that we can still find meaning wherever we choose. Rafa Nadal pulling out a miraculous service hold can still feel like it matters, and Roger Federer’s undying quest for an 18th major can still feel like it matters, and the Williams sisters revisiting their remarkable shared history on a shared tennis court can still feel like it matters, even if common sense suggests it shouldn’t.
Maybe that’s just the human condition writ small. And maybe that, in the end, is the magic.