Rafael Nadal wins the Australian Open, his 21st Grand Slam title

MELBOURNE, Australia — For an aging champion who has earned a reputation as one of the sport’s greatest competitors, it was a good way to stand out on his own with 21 Grand Slam men’s singles titles.

Down two sets to nil in the Australian Open final against the higher-ranked and considerably younger Daniil Medvedev, Rafael Nadal didn’t just consider himself lucky to have made it this far in a tournament he once considered unlikely to play.

Instead, he did what he has done since bursting onto the tennis scene nearly 20 years ago as a long-haired teenager in pirate pants.

He fought. He was thinking. He fought and thought a bit more, and his prize was his most unexpected major title and a win, 2-6, 6-7(5), 6-4, 6-4, 7-5, which perfect for archiving.

It was a match awash with long rallies, momentum changes, dazzling winners on the run, and break points saved and converted. It started Sunday night in Melbourne and ended after 1am Monday. It was 5 hours 24 minutes of true courage, and it broke Nadal’s tie with his biggest rivals, Roger Federer and Novak Djokovic, who are now tied for second on the men’s career list with 20 titles in Grand Slam singles each.

“For me, it’s just amazing,” Nadal said. “To be honest, a month and a half ago I didn’t know if I could be back on the circuit to play tennis again, and today I’m here in front of you all with this trophy with me. You really don’t know how hard I fought to be here.

Nadal, a sixth-ranked Spaniard here, has proven time and time again that he doesn’t fight. He just won’t. You have to snatch a game and a trophy from his hands, point by point, game by game, set by set. Second-seeded Medvedev, for all his power and skill, couldn’t pull it off, losing his way midway through the third set and never quite figuring out how to correct his trajectory.

Nadal gave him openings, no doubt, failing to serve the championship at 5-4 in the fifth set with the crowd behind him as was the case throughout this one-game marathon. But at 5-all, Medvedev couldn’t capitalize. Nadal broke it straight away and then served for the title again.

This time, he didn’t blink. Let the record note that he landed No. 21 holding on to love, winning a base rally, hitting a service winner, then an ace, then a backhand volley winner into open court that was a fitting finishing touch to one of his masterpieces. .

It wasn’t his cleanest or prettiest piece of performance art. He had to step out of the lines and erase some of his game plan to find a way to the finish, but it was definitive and vintage Nadal in that he managed to keep competing in the moment no matter how difficult the previous moment could have been.

He’s 35 and hasn’t won a Grand Slam in 2021 – losing to Djokovic in the French Open semi-finals, the tournament where Nadal reigned supreme, then playing just one more tournament the rest of the season due to a chronic foot problem.

There have been 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.

Almost a month later, he is yet to lose a match in Melbourne, winning a warm-up tournament at Rod Laver Arena and then winning the main event as he battles his way through seven rounds of sorts. ways and in all weathers.

He suffered in the heat against Denis Shapovalov in the quarter-finals, losing a two-set lead and seeking medical treatment off the court before winning in five sets. But Sunday’s final was played under the floodlights in the evening.

Medvedev, beaten by Djokovic in straight sets in the Australian Open final last year, was the dominant player this time around.

He extended Nadal in his opening two service games, then broke him at love in his next two service games to firmly take 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 game, ending it with a clean sliced ​​backhand 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 brought him back, showing more consistency in extended rallies and winning many more quick points with his bigger first serve.

Russian, Medvedev won in the duel between Nadal’s best shot (his whipped bolo forehand) and his own best shot (a two-handed backhand slap). Medvedev finally pulled back as Nadal served for the set in a marathon game and failed to convert a set point.

Medvedev then rallied 3-5 in the tiebreaker winning the final four points to take what looked like a straight-sets lead.

Nadal has now won all four major tournaments at least twice. He won his first Australian Open title in 2009, beating Federer in five sets and then consoling him as he collapsed at the awards ceremony. But Nadal has often been the one in need of solace in Melbourne since then.

He lost four consecutive finals in radically different ways. In 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 free as he returned from injury, snuffed out Nadal’s own comeback story by rallying from a 1-3 deficit in the fifth set.

Then, in 2019, Djokovic handed 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 story in Melbourne, it seemed hard to imagine him winning another Australian Open.

But Nadal surprised the peloton this year, and also surprised himself.

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