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Rafael Nadal storms back to win epic Australian Open final and capture men’s Grand Slam record

Rafael Nadal of Spain defeated Daniil Medvedev of Russia to win the Australian Open. (David Hunt/Shutterstock) (Dave Hunt/EPA-EFE/REX/Shutterstock)
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By the fifth set of Sunday’s Australian Open final, having battled back after falling two sets in arrears, Rafael Nadal had no energy for the pirate-like leaps of his youth or even a shout of “Vamos!”

To save what energy remained, he celebrated service breaks and big points against Daniil Medvedev with a simple clenched fist.

In the end, after a 5-hour 24-minute battle of attrition, Nadal’s champion’s heart, deep belief and extraordinary resilience delivered the most important comeback of his career — and, with it, a men’s record 21st Grand Slam title, 2-6, 6-7 (7-5), 6-4, 6-4, 7-5.

Nadal’s triumph, at age 35, breaks the three-way tie atop men’s tennis that he had shared with Roger Federer and Novak Djokovic, whose bid to compete in this year’s Australian Open as an unvaccinated player was denied by the country’s immigration minister, who deemed his presence a threat to public health and order.

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It also solidifies Nadal’s reputation as the sport’s fiercest competitor, a prizefighter in tennis garb, refusing to be counted out even while being pummeled by a challenger 10 years younger.

Medvedev, who four months ago denied Djokovic’s bid for a 21st major with a straight-sets rout in the U.S. Open final, forced Nadal to produce his best. The Russian had him on the run from the opening game, making clear he was prepared to run down any ball Nadal blasted his way.

Nadal, who was cheered throughout by a wildly partisan crowd at Rod Laver Arena, covered his face, then stood with a disbelieving smile upon clinching the victory.

35-year-old Spaniard Rafa Nadal sealed a men's record 21st Grand Slam title on Jan. 30, defeating Russian Daniil Medvedev in the final. (Video: Reuters)

He later explained that when things looked most bleak, he kept reminding himself of the many close, important matches he had lost at the Australian Open.

“I just wanted to keep believing until the end,” Nadal said. “It was the day to give everything.”

While Nadal’s pursuit of a 21st major was the story line that made the season’s first Grand Slam so compelling, he insisted beforehand that it was not his driving ambition. He repeated the sentiment during his news conference afterward, the trophy beside him.

“Of course, I know it’s a special number, 21,” Nadal conceded. But he said it would not change his perspective or be the reason he would always remember Sunday’s achievement.

As recently as November, Nadal had doubts he would be able to resume his career after undergoing foot surgery in the fall. Months of rehabilitation followed — in the gym, pool and on practice courts — in which he saw no progress.

The only reward he sought after enduring such a painful, occasionally “heartbreaking” five-month recovery, he said, was to be competitive again in the sport he has loved since childhood.

So the reward he celebrated Sunday, he explained, had nothing to do with Grand Slam tallies or his perceived place in tennis history relative to Federer or Djokovic.

“I don’t care much if I am ‘the one’ or not ‘the one’ or the best of the history, not the best of the history,” Nadal said. “Honestly, today, I don’t care much, no? For me, it’s about enjoying nights like today. That means everything for me.”

As the lower-seeded player in Sunday’s final, Nadal strode onto Rod Laver Arena as a beloved underdog, cheered by a crowd that had come to witness history.

Second-seeded Medvedev was determined to make history of his own.

At 6-foot-6 and 182 pounds, Medvedev is as thin as a guitar string yet an explosive mover and defender, with a blistering down-the-line backhand. He deployed all these assets to great effect against Nadal, who committed uncharacteristic errors in the early going, including a flubbed overhead and a rash of miss-hit and errant groundstrokes, and struggled to land first serves.

Medvedev broke the Spaniard early in the match and claimed the opening set with relative ease.

Nadal refused to concede, battling through a second set that was longer than some matches (84 minutes). He tried every variety of spin and pace in his repertoire to change the momentum and won a 40-shot rally for his service break. With it, Nadal took a 3-1 lead, and fans leaped to their feet, braying and waving Spanish flags.

Although less than 90 minutes had elapsed, it felt as if the outcome was at stake given the greater toll that long rallies were taking on Nadal. The chances of overcoming a two-set deficit against the fresher Medvedev seemed slim, and Nadal poured everything he had into avoiding it.

The second set had it all, including five service breaks, an intruder on court who was corralled by security guards, and a squandered set point by Nadal, who at one point led 4-1.

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A tiebreaker was required to settle it, and Medvedev erased an early deficit in that, too, to seize a two-set lead.

With Nadal’s prospects looking bleak, the crowd tried shouldering his load in a tight third set, shouting as Medvedev stepped up to serve and cheering nearly each point he lost.

Nadal fought on to break for a 5-4 lead and served out the set to force a fourth.

Unlike Nadal, who put his missed shots and poor decisions immediately behind him, Medvedev sunk into a negative stew after failing to close the match in straight sets. Having ignored the crowd’s boos for hours, the Russian lost his patience and later revealed that the fans’ animus had extinguished his childhood vision of what it would mean to be a professional tennis player.

For the first time all match, Medvedev also looked weary and called for the trainer to work on his left quadriceps.

With Medvedev serving at 2-2 in a tight fourth set, Nadal finally converted a seventh break point with a wicked cross-court passing shot.

On the changeover, Medvedev lobbied the chair umpire to be more forceful with the crowd. “Can you take control, please!” he asked. “[This is the] final of a Grand Slam! Step up!”

Up a break, Nadal fought on to force the fifth-set decider.

He took his first lead of the match 4 hours 40 minutes in, when he broke serve for a 3-2 advantage. He needed only to hold serve three more times for the victory.

Medvedev called the trainer a third time during the changeover before Nadal served for the match at 5-4.

Two points from victory, Nadal couldn’t close, double-faulting and drawing a time-violation warning instead.

He broke again on his next opportunity, bringing up a second chance to serve for the victory. Finally, it was all he needed.

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