Aus Open: Rafa Nadal escapes to victory No 21
The Spaniard completes a sensational rally from two sets down to defeat Russian world No 2 Daniil Medvedev in five sets to become the most successful men’s Grand Slam champion
A few months ago, down with a foot injury, Rafael Nadal wasn’t sure if he’d ever be able to return to the professional tennis tour. A few weeks ago, down with a “very sick” Covid infection, Nadal wasn’t sure if he’d able to make the trip down to Melbourne.
But there he was, way past the midnight mark on the second Sunday of the Australian Open, standing static metres away from the net, face buried in his hands and then shaking his head looking towards his box.
He couldn’t believe it. Could you?
Pulling off a victory for the ages like only he can, the Spaniard rallied from two sets down to beat world No. 2 Daniil Medvedev 2-6, 6-7(5), 6-4, 6-4, 7-5 in a final that pushed both players to the brink, only for Nadal to come out a greater champion and the sole holder of the record for most Grand Slam men’s singles titles. The three-way tie at 20 between the Big Three of Nadal, Novak Djokovic and Roger Federer has ended. The one-man show can begin.
On Sunday, though, it took two to produce one of the most memorable Grand Slam finals in recent history. Medvedev, who crushed Djokovic’s dream in the US Open final last year while Nadal was on crutches to repair his left foot, threatened to perform a similar role. But Nadal was again the master of the long fight, although for the first time in a Grand Slam final, he came back from a two-set deficit.
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After almost five-and-a-half hours of energy-sapping tennis where both players ran for every ball as if it was the last, Nadal asked for a chair to sit briefly during the trophy ceremony.
During his speech, Medvedev turned to Nadal, saying, “After the match, I asked him, ‘aren't you tired’?” Tired was some understatement.
As early as the third game, Nadal’s body was raining sweat, Medvedev being the thunderous cloud on the other side. The Russian was dictating the rallies and the Spaniard was barely hanging on—a freak touch from the centre of the baseline to a Medvedev smash at the net going past the Russian, for example. Nadal’s skills at the net got him out of trouble in that game, but he knew who was winning the baseline battle.
Nadal was forced to move out of his style. He resorted to the backhand slice and serve and volley. Medvedev was up for both and Nadal was broken to love in the fifth game. Two games later, a couple of double faults and another failed serve and volley attempt had Nadal broken to love again. The 2021 US Open champion, manning the baseline to perfection, took the set 6-2.
So solid was Medvedev at the back that it compelled Nadal to aim for the lines, and miss a lot more than usual (Nadal had 16 unforced errors to Medvedev’s 5 in the first set). The Spaniard’s service games felt like a battle, Medvedev’s a breeze. But at 15-30 in the fourth game of the Medvedev serve, Nadal executed a delightful sliced backhand drop shot to end a 40-shot rally. Against the run of play, Nadal took a 3-1 lead. They traded breaks in the seventh and eighth games, giving Nadal a chance to serve out for the set at 5-3.
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At the first point, a simple overhead from the southpaw crashed into the net. It was a shot Nadal would make nine times out of 10. The miss would cost him. A lengthy deuce game ensued, in which Medvedev saw four break points come and go and Nadal one set point. A mishit from Nadal gave the Russian a fifth chance and a forehand that sailed long the break back.
Nadal’s first serves were dwindling while the unforced errors were rising (20 in the second set). Medvedev was making him run from side to side, the kind of stuff Nadal usually puts his opponents through. The variety from the Russian was also on show in the tiebreaker. At 5-5, Medvedev had a set point with a drop shot, and clinched it with a backhand passing winner.
Nadal lost a set he could well have won. But he was about to kick start the turnaround in a match few felt he could salvage much.
Nadal saved three break points in the sixth game of the third set, dishing out a “C’mon” to the fans. Medvedev began getting irritated with the crowd’s whole-hearted support to the Spaniard and, in turn, missing shots he was acing earlier. Medvedev mockingly applauded the crowd after missing an easy shot at the net at 15-30 down on serve in the ninth game. Nadal, focused as ever to seize the opening, pounced on it with a backhand winner at break point. A hold to love for 6-4 and Nadal started the churn.
Distracted by the crowd and hampered physically—he called out the trainer a few times to work on his thigh—Medvedev employed more drop shots in a bid to shorten the rallies. After cancelling out their breaks in the third and fourth games, Nadal got the edge again in the fourth set when he converted a seventh break point in the following game. That saw him through a set in which Nadal produced 21 winners to Medvedev’s 15.
It was Nadal’s turn now to dictate play from the baseline and generate winners. One such brilliant down-the-line forehand wonder strike on the run gave Nadal a break in the fifth game of the decider. Like in the second set, though, Nadal couldn’t close things out, this time for the championship. From 30-0 up at 5-4, Nadal squandered the game with a double fault and a few errors to bring Medvedev back in it.
Not for too long, though. Nadal struck back immediately as Medvedev sent a forehand long trying to save a third break point. In a final that swung dramatically, there was no twist left as Nadal’s backhand volley could only be put into the net by Medvedev.