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Rafael Nadal toppled by Stefanos Tsitsipas at Australian Open

Stefanos Tsitsipas shakes hands with Rafael Nadal after their men's singles quarterfinal match. (David Gray/AFP via Getty Images)

Roger Federer’s share of tennis history will remain intact — at least for the next few months — with Rafael Nadal’s quarterfinal defeat to Stefanos Tsitsipas on Wednesday at the Australian Open.

Nadal, 34, was seeking to break his tie with Federer for the most Grand Slam titles in men’s history. They are locked at 20.

But after storming through the first two sets and much of the third against the fifth-seeded Tsitsipas, the second-seeded Nadal played a calamitous tiebreaker. Tsitsipas seized the gift, as well as the momentum, to pull off the upset, 3-6, 2-6, 7-6 (7-4), 6-4, 7-5, at Melbourne Park.

Nadal’s exit from the hard-court event only enhances the chances that world No. 1 Novak Djokovic, an eight-time Australian Open champion who has looked the favorite all along, will close the gap on his career rivals and claim an 18th major on Sunday.

Djokovic’s remaining hurdles consist of a semifinal against Russian qualifier Aslan Karatsev on Thursday and, should he prevail, a Sunday final against the winner of the Tsitsipas-Daniil Medvedev semifinal. The fourth-seeded Medvedev beat fellow Russian and No. 7 seed Andrey Rublev, 7-5, 6-3, 6-2, on Wednesday.

Tsitsipas closed the victory on his third match point, with a backhand winner down the line.

“I have no words to describe what just happened on the court,” Tsitsipas told ESPN’s Jim Courier in an on-court interview, crediting the victory to his ability to manage his emotions after starting out a jangle of nerves.

“My tennis speaks for itself,” Tsitsipas said. “It’s an unbelievable feeling to be able to fight at such a level and just to be able to give it my all on the court.”

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With the upset, the Greek matched his best performance in a Grand Slam; he reached the semifinals of the 2019 Australian Open and 2020 French Open.

He also became just the second man to come back from a two-sets-to-none deficit against Nadal in a Grand Slam match. Italy’s Fabio Fognini was the other, when he ousted Nadal in the third round of the 2015 U.S. Open.

For the 22-year-old Tsitsipas, it was a mental triumph, as much as anything, against the game’s most physical player.

Over the four-hour span of the match, Tsitsipas evolved from an admittedly nervous and tense player to one hitting freely, without fear of consequences.

“How would I describe myself?” he mused afterward, asked to describe his mind-set after winning what proved a pivotal tiebreaker. “Nirvana. I’m just there — playing, not thinking. … I focused on one shot, on one serve. I wanted to stay on the court a little bit longer. It just took off by itself.”

It was a match in which the momentum turned on a single point: a badly flubbed overhead by Nadal in the third-set tiebreaker that triggered a rash of errors by the Spaniard, who netted a backhand and badly mis-hit a forehand.

To that point, Nadal had been close to flawless, dominating with his serve, rarely erring on his groundstroke blasts and extending his streak of consecutive sets won in a major to 35.

The tiebreaker sent what appeared on course for a straight-sets victory by Nadal into a fourth set.

Nadal didn’t utter a peep but took his seat, changed his shirt and sent a clutch of rackets off the court for restringing.

Tsitsipas was the dominant player in every regard in the fourth set, while Nadal’s intensity waned.

“I don’t know what happened after the third set,” Tsitsipas said in his on-court interview. “I just fly like a little bird. Everything was working for me.”

Nadal entered the tournament without his customary rigorous practices — partly a result of safety precautions designed to minimize the spread of the coronavirus and partly because of a muscle strain in his back that he suffered just weeks before the tournament.

But he said in his post-match remarks that the injury was not a factor in the outcome and praised Tsitsipas, whom he called “one of the best players of the world,” for raising his level of play.

“The whole issue is I missed an easy smash … an easy forehand with 2-1 in the tiebreak and then another smash in that tiebreak,” Nadal said. “That tiebreak I made a couple of mistakes that I can’t make to win the match or the rest of the things.”

As the match wore on, Tsitsipas won the longer rallies, while Nadal, looking fretful, started to press, trying to shorten points and committing errors in the process.

A decisive fifth set followed at Rod Laver Arena, which under covid-19 protocols was empty, apart from the players’ coaches and essential team members. It was tight, with momentum swinging back and forth.

But Tsitsipas stood tall.

And Nadal accepted the defeat with grace while acknowledging his disappointment.

“I lost a match in quarterfinals of an event that mean a lot to me,” Nadal said. “Australian Open is one of my favorite events, without a doubt. So I missed an opportunity to be in that semifinals again. … Well done for him. He played better than me probably in important moments.”