For an aging champion who has earned his reputation as one of the greatest competitors in sports, it was a fitting way to stand alone with 21 Grand Slam men’s singles titles.
Down, two sets to none, in the Australian Open final, against the higher ranked and considerably younger Daniil Medvedev, Rafael Nadal did not simply count himself fortunate to have made it so far in a tournament he once considered himself unlikely to play.
Instead, he did what he has done since he burst onto the tennis scene nearly 20 years ago as a longhaired teenager in pirate pants.He fought.He thought.He fought and thought some more, and his prize was his most unexpected major title and a victory, 2-6, 6-7 (5), 6-4, 6-4, 7-5, that was utterly suitable for archiving.
It was a match awash in long rallies, momentum shifts, dazzling winners on the run and break points saved and converted.It started on Sunday evening in Melbourne and ended after 1 in the morning on Monday.It was 5 hours 24 minutes of true grit, and it broke Nadal’s tie with his greatest rivals, Roger Federer and Novak Djokovic, who are now tied for second on the men’s career list with 20 grand slam singles titles each.
Nadal, a Spaniard seeded sixth here, has proved many times that he does not beat himself.He just won’t.You need to pry a match and trophy from his hands, point by point, game by game, set by set.
The second-seeded Medvedev, despite all his power and skills, could not manage it, losing his way midway through the third set and never quite figuring out how to correct course.
It was perhaps Nadal’s most surprising major victoryHe is 35 and did not win a Grand Slam tournament in 2021 — losing to Djokovic in the semi-finals of the French Open, the tournament where Nadal has reigned supreme, then playing only one more tournament the rest of the season because of a chronic foot problem.
There were discussions with his family, friends and support team about retirement.But Nadal remains one of the great competitors in any sport, and after recovering from the coronavirus in late December, he flew to Australia to try again.
Nearly one month later, he has yet to lose a match in Melbourne, winning a warm-up tournament at Rod Laver Arena, then winning the main event by working his way through seven rounds in all sorts of ways and weather.
He suffered in the heat against Denis Shapovalov in the quarter finals, losing a two-set lead and seeking medical treatment off court before winning in five sets.But Sunday’s final was played under the lights in the evening.
Medvedev, beaten by Djokovic in straight sets in last year’s Australian Open final, was the dominant player at the start this time.He extended Nadal in his two opening service games, then broke him at love in his next two service games to take firm command of the opening set.
The second set quickly became more complicated — and spectacular — as they attacked, stretched and defended brilliantly.Nadal won a 40-shot rally, the longest of the match, finishing it with a crisply sliced backhand winner that landed on the sideline and earned a standing ovation and then his first break of serve.
But his early lead proved unsustainable as Medvedev reeled him in, showing more consistency in the extended rallies and winning many more quick points with his bigger first serve.
A Russian, Medvedev was prevailing in the duel between Nadal’s best shot (his bolo whip of a forehand) and his own best shot (a slap of a two-handed backhand).Medvedev finally broke back as Nadal served for the set in a marathon game and failed to convert a set point.
Medvedev then rallied from 3-5 in the tiebreaker by winning the final four points to take what looked like a commanding two-set lead.Nadal has now won all four of the major tournaments at least twice.
He won his first Australian Open title in 2009, defeating Federer in five sets.
He lost four straight finals in radically different waysIn 2012, Djokovic beat him in a nearly six-hour test of skill and will that left both men struggling to stand as they awaited their trophies.In 2017, Federer, playing freely as he returned from injury, snuffed out Nadal’s own comeback story by rallying from 1-3 deficit in the fifth set.
Then, in 2019, Djokovic dealt Nadal the most lopsided defeat of his career in a major final, dominating him, 6-3, 6-2, 6-3.Watching that rout and knowing Nadal’s history in Melbourne, it seemed difficult to imagine him winning another Australian Open.But Nadal surprised the field this year, and also surprised himself.
(New York Times News Service)
• Nadal now has 21 grand slam titles — one more than Roger Federer and Novak Djokovic, three less than Margaret Court’s overall tally of 24.Serena Williams (23) and Steffi Graf (22) are also ahead of him in the overall list.
The Spaniard is now the fourth man to complete the double career grand slam.
• This was Nadal’s 29th grand slam final and he holds a record of 21-8 (win % 71.41)Both Federer and Djokovic have win % of 64.52 (Played 31, Won 20, Lost 11) in grand slam finals.
• Nadal and Djokovic have now combined to win 13 of the last 15 grand slams, dating back to the 2018 French Open.
• Only Ken Rosewall (1971 & 1972) and Federer (2018) have won the Australian Open at an older age than Nadal, who is now 35.
Roger Federer: What a match! To my friend and great rival, Rafael Nadal.Heartfelt congratulations on becoming the first man to win 21 Grand Slam singles titles…A few months ago we were joking about both being on crutches.Amazing.Never underestimate a great champion.Your incredible work ethic, dedication and fighting spirit are an inspiration to me and countless
others around the world. I am proud to share this era with you and honoured to play a role in pushing you to achieve more… As you have done for me for the past 18 years.I am sure you have more achievements ahead but for now enjoy this one!
Novak Djokovic: Congratulations to @RafaelNadal for 21st GS.
Amazing achievementAlways impressive fighting spirit that prevailed another time.Enhorabuena…@Medwed33 gave it his all out there and played with the passion and determination we have come to expect from him.
Rod Laver: Two AO (Australian Open) crowns and 21 majors, given everything you have endured this historic victory is so special Rafa.It has been a privilege to watch you doing what you love. Congratulations.