MELBOURNE, Australia – For an aging champion who has earned his reputation as one of the biggest competitors in sports, it was an appropriate way to stand alone with 21 Grand Slam titles for men’s singles.
Down, two sets against no one, in the Australian Open final, against the higher ranked and significantly younger Daniil Medvedev, Rafael Nadal not only considered himself lucky to have reached it so far in a tournament that he once considered unlikely to play .
Instead, he did what he has been doing since he burst onto the tennis scene almost 20 years ago as a long-haired teenager in pirate pants.
He fought. He thought. He struggled and thought something 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 perfectly suited for filing .
It was a battle flooded with long rallies, momentum shifts, dazzling winners on the run and break points saved and converted. It started on Sunday night in Melbourne and ended after 1am on Monday morning. It was 5 hours and 24 minutes of sand gravel, and it broke Nadal’s draw with his biggest rivals, Roger Federer and Novak Djokovic, who are now in second place on the men’s career list with 20 Grand Slam singles titles each.
“For me, it’s just amazing,” Nadal said. “To be honest, a month and a half ago I did not know if I would be able to be back on the tour and play tennis again, and today I am here in front of you who have this trophy with me. You know really not how much I struggled to be here. ”
Nadal, a Spaniard seeded as sixth here, has proven many times that he does not beat himself. He just does not want that. You must pry a match and a trophy from his hands, point by point, game by game, set by set. The second-seeded Medvedev, despite all his strength and abilities, could not cope, losing midway through the third set and never quite figuring out how to set the course.
Nadal undoubtedly gave him openings, failing to serve the 5-4 championship in the fifth set with the crowd behind him, as it was during this entire marathon of a match. But with 5-all, Medvedev could not capitalize. Nadal cracked him right away and then served the title again.
This time he did not blink. Let the record note that he reached No. 21 by holding on to love, winning a baseline rally, hitting a service winner and then an ace and then a backhand volley winner into an open court that was an appropriate final touch to one of his masterpieces.
It was not his purest or most beautiful work of performance art. He had to pull outside the lines and erase some of his game plan to find a way to the goal, but this was the definitive, vintage Nadal, as he managed to continue competing at the moment, no matter where the rock the previous moment had to be. have been.
He is 35 and did not win a Grand Slam tournament in 2021 – lost to Djokovic in the semi-finals of the French Open, the tournament where Nadal has ruled supreme, and then only plays one more tournament the rest of the season due to a chronic foot problem.
There were discussions with his family, friends and support team about retirement. But Nadal remains passionate about the game, and after recovering from coronavirus in late December, he flew to Australia to try again.
Nearly a month later, he has yet to lose a match in Melbourne, where he has won a warm-up tournament at Rod Laver Arena and then won 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 quarterfinals, lost a lead in two sets and sought medical treatment off the field before winning in five sets. But Sunday’s final was played under the light of night.
Medvedev, who was beaten by Djokovic in equal 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 fights, then broke him in his next two service fights 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, and finished it off with a crisply cut backhand winner who landed on the sideline and got a standing ovation and then his first break in the serve.
But his early lead proved untenable as Medvedev reeled him in, showing more consistency in the extended rallies and winning many more quick points with his bigger first serve.
Medvedev, a Russian, won the duel between Nadal’s best shot (his bolo-whip on a forehand) and his own best shot (a slap with a two-handed backhand). Medvedev finally broke back when Nadal earned 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 leading two-set lead.
Nadal has now won all four major tournaments at least twice. He won his first Australian Open title in 2009, defeating Federer in five sets and then comforting him as he collapsed at the awards ceremony. But Nadal has often been the one in need of comfort in Melbourne since then.
He lost four finals in a row in radically different ways. In 2012, Djokovic beat him in a nearly six-hour test of skill and will that made both men struggle to stand while waiting for their trophies. In 2017, Federer, who played freely when he returned from an injury, got out of Nadal’s own comeback history by gathering from 1-3 deficits in the fifth set.
Then, in 2019, Djokovic Nadal inflicted the most skewed defeat of his career in a grand finale, dominating him, 6-3, 6-2, 6-3. Looking at that route and knowing Nadal’s history in Melbourne, it seemed hard to imagine him winning another Australian Open.
But Nadal surprised the field this year and also surprised himself.