Rafa completes epic comeback, wins record 21st Slam
EVEN when he was two sets to love down, Rafael Nadal never lost his fighting spirit. Despite serving for the second set in his Australian Open final against world number two Daniil Medvedev and failing to do so, the Spanish star just found a way to win. In one of the greatest comebacks in history, the Spanish sixth seed picked himself off the canvas and produced an epic fight to stun the tournament favourite in five sets, 2-6 6-7 6-4 6-4 7-5, to edge ahead in the Greatest of All Time (GOAT) rankings with his 21st Grand Slam title.
The Spanish star might have lost a great deal of power from his hey day, but when he is 35-years-old and still winning Grand Slam titles, it is credit to his sheer willpower to remain in matches. A chronic foot injury threatened to end his tennis career, and The King of Clay looked destined to only add more Roland Garros titles to his major count. But without world number one and equal Grand Slam record holder Novak Djokovic at Melbourne Park, it injected new life into the Spaniard.
Nadal had spent less time on court than Medvedev throughout the tournament, but also had a somewhat easier draw than his opponent. But the Russian would be by far his biggest challenge. It showed early, with the sixth seed taking seven minutes to win his opening service game, and 10 minutes to win his second. By contrast, Medvedev won his first in just three minutes, symbolic of his dominant serving performance throughout the Australian Open.
As if the tiring first four games, Nadal was broken to love in the fifth game. Two games later, he was broken again to love, serving back-to-back double faults in the seventh game and already the danger signs were there. The Russian won five consecutive games to go from 1-2 down to win the first set 6-2 in a 42-minute set.
The second set saw the players going toe-for-toe early, and then some rare unforced errors from Medvedev began to creep in. He dropped his service game and sunk to as low as 1-4 in the second set, before winning his next service game to love. What followed was three consecutive breaks, and Nadal having a set point 94 minutes into the match. Unfortunately for the Spaniard, Nadal missed his chance with a backhand unforced error – something that plagued him early in the match – and Medvedev took the next break point chance to win the game.
From there, Medvedev again forced Nadal into another tough service game, but the Spaniard held on, with the set eventually going into a tiebreaker. As the match ticked over the two-hour mark, Nadal had a mini-break of 5-3 in the tiebreak. Then the Russian stepped up, forcing the Spaniard to made a couple of errors off both wings, then producing back-to-back winners, he seized the last four points of the set, takin the tiebreak and going out to a 6-2 7-6 lead.
Many might have expected losing the second set after having a set point might have broken the Spaniard, but he put Medvedev right under the pump from the get-go in the third. A 17-minute opening service game – also known as a Bernard Tomic set – from the Russian was unheard of given how he had put opponents to the serve all tournament. A total of 18 points later, Medvedev held serve, but it was far from easy. His next service game he held to love in two minutes, in what was a far more palatable result for the world number two. But Nadal would not go away.
Remaining on serve until the ninth game of the set, Nadal stepped up. Earning two break points, he produced a brilliant backhand winner to break the Russian and have a second chance to serve for a set. As if the veteran had roared to life, he slammed home four consecutive winners in a stunning game to take the set 6-4, and at least force the match into a fourth set.
That set started like the others with both players winning their service games. But this time, Nadal would strike early with a break, hitting a brilliant backhand winner in the third game, and then Medvedev making a mistake with his forehand, the sixth seed would eventually break off the back of an uncharacteristic Medvedev double fault. Yet again though, the Russian would return serve – literally and break straight back. Only for Nadal to do the same in another epic game, winning Medvedev’s service game in 12 minutes, and then hold serve to lead 4-2.
Medvedev held to love with a convincing service game, but Nadal would also see off a couple of break points to his opponent in the eighth game to hold his serve and move one game away from forcing the match into a decider. A game later, Nadal brought up a set point following back-to-back backhand winners. Medvedev saved that one, but it was only a matter of time as Nadal stepped up yet again serving for the set. Serving for the set, he never looked like losing it, winning it to love and forcing the four-hour and 12-minute match into a fifth set, and no doubt another chapter in history.
The Russian looked uncharacteristically rattled to start the fifth set, serving a double fault off the first point. Nadal wanted to surge early, hitting a couple of forehand winners to set up a break point. Medvedev had a couple of aces and a brilliant backhand winner to ensured he held on, but his easy service games were not as common. He won his next one in just two minutes though, as the deciding set went on serve, with a couple of love service games from both players. Then the Spaniard struck again. Earning a couple of break points in the fifth game, Nadal broke back with the second, then survived another 16-minute service game – which feature three break point chances for his opponent – to go 4-2 up and just two games away from the title.
Medvedev received just what the doctor ordered in the seventh game, serving to love, finishing it off with an ace, but Nadal also held serve and was now just one game away from his second Australian Open title. Despite some obvious nerves from the Russian – another double fault with the match ticking past the fifth hour of player – He managed to remain alive in the tournament off the back of a backhand winner. Now it was up to Nadal to serve out the match.
The sixth seed race to a 30-0 lead after a nice forehand winner, but then at 30-15, served a double fault to open the door for his opponent. Medvedev hit a forehand winner, and then Nadal cramped up with a backhand unforced error to allow the Russian back in the match. Now 5-5 in the fifth and five hours and 15 matches into the night, the stage was set for an epic conclusion. Neither player was backing down, and Nadal eaned a break point midway through Medvedev’s next service game. It would be the first of three in that game, of which Medvedev saved two, but then a forehand unforced error caught him undone. All that work to break, and Nadal had broken back and would get a second chance to serve for the match.
Enough was enough for the Spaniard. Starting the twelfth game of the fifth set five hours and 20 minutes in was far too long of a match for the 35-year-old to be competing in a Grand Slam final. He threw everything he had into not letting his potential 21st Grand Slam record go to a tiebreaker, and it worked. Forcing a couple of errors off both wings, Nadal served an ace to bring up three championship points. Then, a brilliant backhand winner sealed the deal and Nadal could hardly believe it. Despite all the years of fighting and standing alongside his rivals, for the first time, he was now ahead of them, winning his 21st Grand Slam in a five-hour 24-minute epic contest.
“It was one of the most emotional matches of my career,” Nadal said during the trophy ceremony. “To share the court with Daniil was just an honour. It is amazing. To be honest, one and a half months ago I wasn’t sure if was able to be back on the Tour playing tennis again. But today I am here in front of all of you with this trophy in front of me. You are just amazing, thank you so much.”
Medvedev said he was in a state of shock, not just at the ridiculous match the pair had just played, but at his rival who never ceased to amaze him.
“Tough to talk after playing [for] five hours and 30 minutes and losing, but I want to congratulate Rafa because what he did today, I was amazed,” Medvedev said. “After the match I asked him, ‘Are you tired?’ because it was insane. You raised your level after the first two sets for your 21st Grand Slam title. You are an amazing champion, it was unbelievable.”
In the wake of his Australian Open triumph, Nadal moved up to world number five in the world, whilst Medvedev edged closer to the number one spot.