Rafael Nadal has edged Daniil Medvedev in a classic Australian Open final, roaring back from two sets down to claim a record 21st Grand Slam title only months after fearing his career might be over due to injury.
With Novak Djokovic forced out by deportation and Roger Federer recovering from knee surgery, the Spanish great is now one major title clear of his “Big Three” rivals after surviving the 2-6, 6-7(5), 6-4, 6-4, 7-5 thriller at Rod Laver Arena on Sunday.
Riding a wave of raucous support from the crowd, a vintage Nadal pulled off one of his finest performances to deny Medvedev again, less than three years after leaving the Russian heartbroken in five sets at the 2019 US Open final.
In a match steeped in drama, Nadal was two points from the title but was broken as he served for the match at 5-4.
He held firm to break Medvedev again and served out the match to love, rushing in to deliver a backhand volley as a stunning coup de grace.
Dropping his racket, Nadal shook his head and grinned, then kicked a tennis ball away and pumped his fists in delight.
It was a triumph that defied time and logic, the 35-year-old completing his first five-set win from a two-set deficit in 15 years – since overhauling Mikhail Youzhny in the fourth round of Wimbledon in 2007.
Having suffered four final defeats in 2012, 2014, 2017 and 2019, Nadal can now savour a second Melbourne Park crown, 13 years after beating Federer in the 2009 decider.
The long hair and pirate shorts of that decade have fallen by the wayside, but the class and fighting spirit endure in the face of Nadal’s titanic battles to recover from injuries.
Having missed Wimbledon due to fatigue and the US Open because of a chronic condition in his left foot, Nadal was on the brink of quitting in late-2021 and felt blessed just to turn up at Melbourne Park this year.
His ability to play seven matches felt miraculous for the Spaniard, who joins Djokovic, Rod Laver and Roy Emerson as the only men to win each Grand Slam title twice.
“It was one of the most emotional matches in my tennis career,” Nadal said in his on-court interview. “I don’t know what to say. For me, it’s just amazing.
“Being honest, one month and a half ago, I did not know if I will be able to be back on the tour and play tennis again. And today, in front of all of you (the crowd), having this trophy with me … you really don’t know how much I fought to be here.
“Having the huge support that I received during the three weeks is going to stay in my heart forever.”
Medvedev congratulated Nadal on the victory.
“It’s tough to talk after five hours 30 and losing but I want to congratulate Rafa because what you did today, I was amazed,” he said.
Now more than ever, world number one Djokovic may rue his failed bid to defend his title in Melbourne without COVID-19 vaccination.
His deportation threw the tournament wide open, leaving a vacuum for Nadal to fill and strike a potentially decisive blow in the Grand Slam race.
Federer missed the tournament to continue his rehabilitation from knee surgery.
Nadal’s conversion record in major finals is now 21 out of 29. Federer and Djokovic each have 20 majors from 31 finals appearances.
Federer and Djokovic were quick to congratulate their long-time rival after his victory on Sunday.
“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,” Federer said in a social media post.
“Your incredible work ethic, dedication and fighting spirit are an inspiration to me and countless others around the world,” he added.
In a post on Instagram Djokovic said: “Congratulations to @rafaelnadal for 21st GS. Amazing achievement. Always impressive fighting spirit that prevailed another time”.