Rafael Nadal has only played 30 matches at the Australian Open since 2004, at age 17. Which of these are his top 10?
The list features some of the best matches in history, some truly historic matches that you could watch over and over again. Unique and interesting for not only how Rafa was playing, but also for how great his opponents were playing.
But quite a few of the 30 matches are real duds; at least 10 against journeymen and players outside of the Top 50. Of the 30 matches, Rafa lost six (a couple of these will appear on the list).
Counting forward: 2004, Rafa’s "debut" as a world-class tennis player came not with his win over Roger Federer in Miami, but in December of that year in the Davis Cup final, where he beat world No. 1 Andy Roddick.
So, his performance in the Australian Open of 2004 is not Rafa as we think of him today.
2005: At age 18, he lost to eventual runner-up Lleyton Hewitt (which gives you an idea of how much time has passed!).
2006: He did not play (foot).
2007: Things got interesting.
But we’ll start this countdown with a match from 2011.
A wily veteran versus a wily, talented newcomer. Players using their brains more than their forearms.
Bernard Tomic is a wily young player, and this was their first matchup. Tomic has a patient game, reminiscent of Andy Murray (but even more so!). Tomic is very willing to trade paceless balls in an interesting defensive game, until he draws an error.
The first set, not so interesting, as both men tested each other’s game. The second set saw Tomic come to life with carefully chosen explosive offense.
But Rafael Nadal eventually figured him out and shut him down.
Rafael Nadal has had quite a few shootouts with Philipp Kohlschrieber over the years. This match is perhaps the best of them (see also: Australian Open, 2007; Roger’s Cup, 2010).
This was the year that Rafa was coming back from the tendinitis that kept him out of Wimbledon. He’d spent the fall tweaking his game, and many of his fans worried that he was not all the way back as he commenced his 2010 campaign.
Philipp tested Rafa over 4 sets, winning the third set decisively and making the fourth set a nail-biter before seeming to run out of steam.
Rafa seemed to be "playing" his way into form through the match, and at the end gave his fans hope that he’d gotten past his form problems of the previous fall.
Rafael Nadal vs. Andy Murray matches are almost always entertaining, but why include it on this list when Rafa lost?
Murray came out firing on all cylinders in this contest—playing perhaps the most aggressive tennis we’ve ever seen from him, following up on his performance against Rafa in the 2008 US Open.
For two sets, these competitors went at it, with Andy getting the better of Rafa both times.
In spite of the fact that Rafa ended up retiring with a knee injury in the third set, his performance in the second set, in particular, ranks right up there with the best of Rafa at the Australian Open.
I confess to being a Fernando Gonzalez fan—that is, a fan of his huge forehand. In this match, the massive Gonzalez forehand was matched up with Nadal’s.
Gonzo got the better of Rafa this time, but nonetheless, of all the Gonzalez matchups, this is among the more entertaining.
Rafa would exact revenge later on in the clay court season in 2007, beating Gonzo in the final at Rome and again in Hamburg. See also Gonzalez vs. Rafa for the 2008 Olympic Gold Medal.
This is the third match in a suite of outstanding matches for Rafael Nadal in 2009. (Guess which the other two are? And which of those will I select for No. 1?)
In fall of 2008, in Madrid (they played Madrid in the fall in those days), Rafa lost a tight and fabulous match to Simon. In the next tournament of 2008, in Paris, injury forced Rafa to retire.
By early 2009, fans didn’t know where Rafa’s game was. The matchup with Simon was going to be a tough test. You could count on Simon to keep the ball in play.
The amusing post-match interview can be found here. No one really guessed how much great tennis was yet to come at the Australian Open that year.
I told you things started getting interesting for Rafael Nadal at the Australian Open in 2007.
Andy Murray and Rafa were about the same age (19-20), Andy trained in Spain for about a year after seeing/talking to Rafa as a teenager and both expect to have comparable careers.
In 2007, their AO profiles at about the same spot, Murray had just hired coach Brad Gilbert and started to put it together as a world-class player.
This was their first matchup.
With Gilbert’s strategic help, Murray attacked Rafa on the forehand side (a strategy Novak has successfully employed in 2011), which seemed whacko at the time.
Ultimately, though he showed frustration early in the match, Rafa’s superior fitness and speed came into play at the end.
Everyone will remember the 2005 Australian Open for the epic match between Safin and Federer. However, the second best match of the tournament is arguably this four-hour dogfight.
Given the nature of both competitors and the stages of their careers, how could it be otherwise?
Rafa, just 18, was fresh off of his 2004 Davis Cup victory and a very good teenager on hard courts, just not yet the formidable force he would become. It would be later this year that he would take the clay court world by storm, win a classic against clay maestro Guillermo Coria, others against Roger Federer and win the first of his French Open tournaments at the age of 19.
Lleyton Hewitt—a former world No. 1 at age 20—was, at 24, listed by the 2005 Tennis Magazine as one of the 40 greatest players in the open era. The fight-back from Lleyton late in the match is yet another in tennis’ fabulous comebacks. The match produced nearly four hours of intense rallying.
Both competitors ran down impossible balls and made incredible shots that made the crowd erupt. It wasn't until the fifth set that a decisive victor could be seen.
Nadal began to lose a step due to fatigue under the hot Australian sun. Hewitt would go on to the final.
What? Not a five-setter, you ask?
In this match, Jo-Wilfried Tsonga burst onto the tennis scene with a brilliant, match of a lifetime to stun Rafael Nada in the semifinal. For me, one of the most outstanding, consistently brilliant tennis matches in history.
Both men are brilliantly athletic. In this particular match, Jo-Willy out-hustles, out-subtles, out-hits, out-drop-shots the always brilliantly athletic Nadal. Both men at the top of their games, and the performances of each one, outstanding.
If you're stranded on a desert island and have to pick 20 matches to keep you entertained, this could be one on your list, despite the seemingly uncompetitive score-line.
Ahhh, which of these last two outstanding matches to place above the other?
The 60-hour span encompassing this semifinal match and the final are perhaps the most outstanding tennis moments of Rafael Nadal's career.
Two left-handers. Fernando Verdasco actually has a better forehand than Rafa, and he had worked very hard on his fitness with Andre Agassi’s old team.
This match is the longest men's singles match in Australian Open history, at five hours and 13 minutes. The dogfight left both men cramping and exhausted at times.
Unlike the equally fabulous final, the strategy against each other was not as straightforward as Rafa's standard strategy against Roger. And Rafa is obviously caught off guard by Verdasco's improved ability to track down balls and his powerful forehand.
At one point, Fernando starts cramping, and one expects Rafa to seize this opportunity to finish him off. Instead, Fernando stands in there (almost immobile) and delivers winners into every corner.
And so now, with less than 48 hours rest, Rafael Nadal has to take on his chief rival, a man in the prime of his career, the greatest tennis player in history: Roger Federer. Nobody thought he could win.
From the first point struck, it seemed as if the classic rivals had simply picked up from their epic 2008 Wimbledon final (called by some the best tennis match ever played). Sets 6, 7, 8, 9, 10!
The turning point of the match may be 0-40 in the third set on Rafa's serve. Fatigue was finally catching up with him. Everyone can see him wobbling on his feet like a prize fighter about to go down. Instead, Roger cannot break him. (the movie Unbreakable comes to mind).
Later, Roger would say, "I never should have got into that 5th set."
As a bonus question, group: Which of the two finals, Wimbledon  and this Australian Open final  is the better match?