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Rafa roars back from the brink to claim Grand Slam record in Australian Open thriller

Rafael Nadal of Spain celebrates winning the Men's Singles final match against Daniil Medvedev of Russia, to claim his 21st Grand Slam title at the Australian Open tennis tournament at Melbourne Park in Melbourne, Australia, 30 January 2022. (Photo: EPA-EFE/JOEL CARRETT)

Spain’s Rafael Nadal came back from two sets down to become the first man to win 21 Grand Slam titles, against Russia’s Daniil Medvedev at the Australian Open on Sunday.

Rafa Nadal edged Daniil Medvedev in a classic Australian Open final on Sunday, roaring back from two sets down to claim a record 21st Grand Slam title only months after fearing his glorious 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 in Melbourne. 

“It was one of the most emotional matches in my tennis career,” Nadal said at the post-match presentation. 

“It’s just amazing now… being gone one month and a half ago I didn’t know if I will be able to be back on the tour playing tennis again. And today I’m here in front of all of you, having this trophy with me.” 

Riding a wave of raucous support from the crowd, a vintage Nadal pulled off his greatest escape to deny Medvedev again, less than three years after leaving the Russian heartbroken in five sets at the 2019 US Open final. 

In a five-hour 24-minute epic 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, with the 35-year-old fighting back from a two-set deficit for the first time in 15 years — the last time being against 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 there in another epic decider, in 2009. 

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 because of 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. 

Are you tired?

His ability to win seven matches felt miraculous for the Spaniard, who joins Djokovic, Rod Laver and Roy Emerson as the only men to take each Grand Slam title at least twice. 

Thrashed by Djokovic in last year’s final, US Open champion Medvedev has now lost three out of the four Grand Slam deciders he has contested. 

“Tough to talk after five hours and 30 minutes and losing,” said Medvedev who shuffled and rolled his eyes during a lengthy speech by a local tennis official. 

“What you [Nadal] did today was amazing. 

Rafael Nadal of Spain celebrates after defeating Daniil Medvedev of Russia in the mens singles final at the Australian Open grand slam tennis tournament at Melbourne Park in Melbourne, Australia, 30 January 2022. (Photo: EPA-EFE/DEAN LEWINS)

“After the match, I just asked him: ‘Are you tired?’ It was insane… I thought you are going to get tired, maybe just a little, but you won the match. 

“You’re an amazing champion and I think you guys [Federer, Djokovic and Nadal] have a good rivalry still. It’s not over yet.” 

It was a match that had everything, even a crowd invasion as a spectator jumped on the court to protest Australia’s detention of refugees as Nadal struggled to serve out the second set. 

Nadal failed to convert a set point and Medvedev made him pay, sealing the set with a crisp backhand passing shot. 

The Russian hammed up his villain persona, flapping his hands at the crowd with a smirk. It proved a red rag to a bull as both Nadal and the crowd united to harry the Russian through the next two sets. 

Medvedev was left begging for crowd control from the chair umpire as Nadal stormed back into the game. 

“They are idiots. No brains. Empty brains. Probably in their life it must be very bad,” he said of the fans during a change of ends. 

Medvedev’s frustrations only grew and he became sluggish in his movements as the match wore on. He frowned as a trainer worked on his left thigh but dragged himself out to make a game of it to the finish. 

In the end, it was Nadal dictating terms to the Russian and showing himself and the world that further records may yet be at his mercy. 

Federer and Djokovic praise Nadal

Federer and Djokovic were quick to congratulate Nadal on his record-breaking achievement. 

“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. 

Djokovic had been top-seeded in the draw for the Open but was unable to play, deported from Australia on the eve of the tournament in a dramatic dispute over the country’s Covid-19 entry requirements and his unvaccinated status. 

“Congratulations to @rafaelnadal for 21st GS. Amazing achievement. Always impressive fighting spirit that prevailed another time,” the Serbian player said in a post on Instagram. 

Rafael Nadal of Spain holds the Norman Brookes Challenge Cup after winning the men’s singles final against Daniil Medvedev of Russia at the Australian Open grand slam tennis tournament at Melbourne Park in Melbourne, Australia, 30 January 2022. (Photo: EPA-EFE/DEAN LEWINS)

Federer missed the tournament to continue his rehabilitation from knee surgery. 

“A few months ago, we were joking about both being on crutches. Amazing. Never underestimate a great champion,” the Swiss player said of Nadal. 

“Your incredible work ethic, dedication and fighting spirit are an inspiration to me and countless others around the world. I am proud to share this era with you and honoured to play a role in pushing you to achieve more. 

“As you have done for me for the past 18 years. I am sure you have more achievements ahead, but for now enjoy this one!”  

Nadal Fact Box

  • Age: 35
  • Country: Spain
  • ATP ranking: 5
  • Seeding: 6
  • Grand Slam titles (21): Australian Open (2009, 2022); French Open (2005, 2006, 2007, 2008, 2010, 2011, 2012, 2013, 2014, 2017, 2018, 2019, 2020); Wimbledon (2008, 2010); US Open (2010, 2013, 2017, 2019).

Early life

  • Born in Manacor, Spain to Sebastian Nadal and Ana Maria Parera.
  • His uncle Miguel Angel Nadal was a former soccer player who represented Barcelona, RCD Mallorca and the Spain national team.
  • Introduced to tennis by another uncle, Toni, who encouraged his naturally right-handed nephew to play left-handed as it would give him an advantage.
  • Turned professional in 2001 and won the junior Davis Cup with Spain in 2002. Won the ATP newcomer of the year in 2003.

Career to date

  • Won his first ATP singles title in Poland in 2004.
  • Defeated world No 2 Andy Roddick to guide Spain to the Davis Cup title in 2004. He won the tournament again in 2008, 2009, 2011 and 2019.
  • Won the French Open on debut in 2005 and a year later beat Roger Federer in the final.
  • In 2007, he became the first man since Bjorn Borg in 1980 to win a hat-trick of Roland Garros titles.
  • Won his first Wimbledon title in 2008 with a five-set victory over Federer, a match dubbed the “the greatest tennis match in history”.
  • Won a gold medal at the 2008 Beijing Olympics for Spain in singles. Clinched the doubles gold with Marc Lopez at the 2016 Rio Games.
  • Suffered his first French Open loss in 2009 to Sweden’s Robin Soderling in the fourth round.
  • Regained the title the following year, beating Soderling in the final. He also won Wimbledon for a second time in 2010 before claiming his first US Open title, becoming the seventh man to win all four Grand Slams.
  • Matched Borg’s record of six French Open titles with his 2011 victory and overtook the Swede in 2012.
  • Became the first man with eight titles at the same Grand Slam when he beat fellow Spaniard David Ferrer in the 2013 final at Roland Garros. He also won the US Open that year.
  • Became the first man to win five successive French Open titles in 2014.
  • Won his second Grand Slam of 2017 at Flushing Meadows after a 10th French Open title in June.
  • Claimed an 11th French Open title and his 17th major with victory over Dominic Thiem in 2018.
  • Defeated Thiem again, in the 2019 final, to seal his 12th Roland Garros title. He also won a fourth US Open crown by defeating Russian Daniil Medvedev in the final.
  • Matched Federer’s record of 20 Grand Slam titles by defeating Djokovic in the French Open final in 2020.
  • Got his 1,000th victory on the ATP Tour at the 2020 Paris Masters, becoming the fourth man in the professional era to achieve it.
  • Suffered only his third-ever loss at Roland Garros in 2021 when he was beaten by Djokovic in the semi-finals.
  • Missed chunks of the 2021 season, including Wimbledon, the Olympics and the US Open, due to a long-standing foot injury. DM
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  • Yesterday Rafa showed exactly why he is a champion. Being two games down he found the energy and competitiveness to win the next three against a much younger man. What an incredibly gutsy performance. Rafa, you’ll be remembered for this stand out game long after you’ve retired from tennis.

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