For two sets and more, Rafael Nadal trailed an opponent 10 years his junior who had built a fortress behind the baseline and outplayed him from all parts of the court. Even with all of Nadal’s trademark fight, the deficit was thorough and clear, and as Daniil Medvedev inched towards a grand slam title while in the greatest form of his young career, Nadal would have left with few complaints after a run that was already beyond his own imagination.
All Nadal could do was keep his head up, focus on each point as it came and search for solutions until the end. He did so, as he does every single time he steps on to a tennis court, and before a manic crowd on Rod Laver Arena, Nadal produced one of the greatest masterstrokes of his endless career. From two sets down, Nadal somehow recovered to defeat Medvedev 2-6, 6-7 (5), 6-4, 6-4, 7-5 after five hours and 24 minutes and, in the process, win a record 21st grand slam title.
Despite all that Nadal has already achieved, all of the impossible comebacks he has engineered, this may just be the greatest triumph of all. Nadal had arrived in Melbourne on the back of a six-month layoff following surgery on a chronic foot injury that forced him to consider the possibility that he would never return to tennis. As he prepared to return, he was unable to practice after being bedridden by Covid in December. At 35 years old, the sixth seed was not delusional enough to think that such preparation was sufficient to win seven best-of-five-set matches against the finest players in the world.
Somehow, it was. It required him to use every last tool in his vast toolbox, one that he has grooved over his 20-year career, forcing himself far out of his comfort zone. Yet he found the right solutions by the end. He now takes sole ownership of the all-time record, breaking his tie of 20 with Novak Djokovic and Roger Federer.
At a tournament that has played host to many great moments but so many of the toughest losses and strokes of bad luck in his career, it stands as an entirely fitting way for Nadal to win his second Australian Open title, completing his set of at least two titles at each grand slam. Nadal had lost his last four finals in Australia between 2012 and 2019 while also suffering through some of his most disappointing injuries in the country.
“Tonight has been very special,” Nadal said. “I give it everything that I have inside, believe me. I am super, super-tired in all ways. I even can’t celebrate. But was the day to give everything, no? I enjoyed. I enjoyed the fight. I enjoyed the emotions. At the end have this trophy with me means everything today, no?”
As Nadal reflects on his efforts, Medvedev, the second seed, will have to digest how he squandered the opportunity to win a second consecutive grand slam tournament, losing his cool in front of a crowd cheering for his demise and despite his bold efforts at the end, never regaining his control over the match.
The crowd made its allegiances clear from the beginning, with Nadal entering the arena to a standing ovation while Medvedev’s arrival was greeted with some additional boos. But early on, it took an enormous effort for Nadal to just win points as Medvedev imposed himself on the match, taking the first set with ease.
Nadal opened the second set searching desperately for a solution. He threw down backhand slices, drop shots, net forays, and numerous serve and volley attempts. he just fell short in the 86 minute set, serving for the set at 5-3 and also holding a 5-3 lead in the tie-break. The match was moving from Nadal at speed, and he soon found himself down 2-3, 0-40.
As he battled, Medvedev became increasingly irritated by the raucous crowd and attempted ill-advised drop shots, then sarcastically applauded the stands. Nadal broke serve at 4-4, he served out the set and he continued to build his comeback in the fourth, hitting some of his best form of the match and ending the set on top of the baseline, crunching backhands as he pushed the match to a decider.
With momentum behind him, Nadal pushed ahead for the first time since the opening set. He harassed Medvedev in his service games, generating breakpoints at 2-2 and he broke serve with a thunderous running forehand down-the-line winner.
Nadal held on through numerous tough holds but as he served out for the title at 5-4, he faltered, netting a backhand on break point. No matter, the Spaniard immediately wrested the break back and at his second attempt, he served one of the greatest wins of his life out to love. As he celebrated a victory that not even he thought he was capable of, Nadal stared at his team and shook his head in wonder at what he had just done.