Rafael Nadal is a special player. That is beyond question.
Without going into too much detail, his 20 grand slam titles, 69 tournament victories and $125m (£92m) in career prize money speak for themselves. That he has reached a 36th quarter-final at the age of 35 is just another accolade in a glittering career.
But does he get special treatment? And if he does, is that fair?
The question was put to Denis Shapovalov, who stepped into the press room with his hair still damp from a sweltering, five-set, four-hour marathon Australian Open defeat to Nadal. He had lost a rollercoaster. The defeat was still raw.
He apologised for calling umpire Carlos Bernardes “corrupt” in one frustration-filled outburst on court – “I misspoke” – but stood by his anger at Nadal’s slow play.
Does he get special treatment? “Of course. 100 per cent he does. 100 per cent.
“Every other match that I have played, the pace has been so quick because the refs have been on the clock after every single point.
“This one after the first two sets it was like an hour and a half just because he’s dragged out so much.”
Shapovalov had earlier lost his cool at the wrong moment, throwing his hands in the air as Nadal was about to serve with seven seconds left on the clock. It ended with a brief, and good-natured, confrontation between the players at the net.
Nadal admitted he had taken some extra time to change his clothes at the end of the first set, but given the conditions he did not feel that was unreasonable – and he even appeared to admit that Bernardes had given him extra time to make up for what Nadal felt was the umpire’s mistake.
“Denis got I think pissed because the umpire called time and I needed like 30 seconds extra to keep changing my clothes,” Nadal said.
“I think it’s fair that Carlos give me this extra time at that moment, because I think Carlos make a small mistake in that moment to call time. Normally at the end of the set, the umpire look around and wait a little bit to call time until the player is a little bit ready when he’s changing.”
Nadal of course can only speak from personal experience, but the umpire is certainly not required to wait for a player. The Grand Slam Rulebook states that, regardless of the score, there should only be two minutes “from the moment the ball goes out of play at the end of the set until the time the first serve is struck for the next set”. It makes no allowances for weather or player’s preferences, and the rules also state that a match should be played at the server’s pace. At the start of the second set, Shapovalov was ready to serve – and Nadal was not ready to receive – yet there was no code violation forthcoming from the umpire.
So the 22-year-old probably has a point, even if he made it poorly, and the numbers bear it out. One-sided tennis is generally fast-moving tennis and when Shapovalov went two sets down, he had been largely outplayed: neither set went to a tie-break, only four games went as far as deuce and there were only two breaks of serve. It was routine, and yet it clocked up 99 minutes that you would usually associate with two close sets.
At the start of the fifth set, Nadal strode off the court for what he called a “medical evaluation”. Shapovalov lost the next three games after Nadal appeared wearing a fresh shirt. Whether the Spaniard also went to the toilet is not, frankly, of much concern but it would have infuriated his opponent to learn that he had.
“For the same reason I wasn’t allowed to go to the washroom last year at the Australian Open because I had called a medical,” Shapovalov said.
“I’m not arguing the fact that he had a medical, but how can you get evaluated medically and have a toilet break at the same break and just causing so much delay in the game? It’s just not balanced.”
He added: “I think it’s unfair how much Rafa is getting away with.”
Mats Wilander, a three-time Australian Open champion, agrees that there is an imbalance, but not one that should be redressed.
“Rafa plays on Center Court, Rod Laver Arena every match. why? Because he deserves to be there,” Wilander told Eurosport viewer afterwards.
“You’re going to give the the great champions a little bit slack at some point. I think it’s part of our sport a little bit.
“It’s not fair [but] Rafa deserves it, [even] if it’s unfair.
“And Denis Shapovalov most probably needs to also go on to the court and say ‘okay, what can not make me irritated? Oh, that’s right. Rafa taking too long. That cannot interfere with my brain.’”
Despite Wilander’s defence, slow tennis is not good tennis, especially for the viewer. Nadal appeared to be genuinely ill on Tuesday, but he is a regular recipient of time violations even on his quicker days. The 25-second shot clock was not introduced explicitly for him but in recognition of the fact that matches which take four hours when they could take less than three are not good for the growth of the game.
And this is not a generational thing either. Stefanos Tsitsipas picked up multiple warnings for slow play against Taylor Fritz on Monday, and they will not be his last either. Whether Nadal is getting special treatment or not is immaterial. In reality, tennis just needs to get better at enforcing its rules.
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