MELBOURNE, Australia — 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.
“For me, it’s just amazing,” Nadal said. “Being honest, one month and a half ago, I did not know if I will be able to be back on the tour playing tennis again, and today I am here in front of all of you having this trophy with me. You really don’t know how much I fought to be here.”
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.
Nadal gave him openings, no doubt, failing to serve out the championship at 5-4 in the fifth set with the crowd behind him as it was throughout this marathon of a match. But at 5-all, Medvedev could not capitalize. Nadal broke him right back and then served for the title again.
This time, he did not blink. Let the record note that he clinched No. 21 by holding at 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 apt final touch to one of his masterpieces.
It was not his cleanest or prettiest work of performance art. He had to draw outside the lines and erase some of his game plan to find a way to the finish, but this was definitive, vintage Nadal in that he managed to continue competing in the moment no matter how rocky the previous moment might have been.
He is 35 and did not win a Grand Slam tournament in 2021 — losing to Djokovic in the semifinals 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 passionate about the game, and after recovering from the coronavirus in late December, he flew to…
Read More News: Rafael Nadal Wins the Australian Open, His 21st Grand Slam Title