Rafael Nadal is officially the greatest male tennis player of all time, upsetting Daniil Medvedev to stand atop the mountain on his own by winning a record-breaking 21st Grand Slam title on Sunday night.
Following Saturday’s evening of epic action in which Ash Barty became Australia’s first women’s singles champion in 44 years, and Nick Kyrgios and Thanasi Kokkinakis won the men’s doubles title, Nadal and Medvedev had big shoes to fill on a night full of high expectations.
The pair have Grand Slam final history, having played each other in the 2019 US Open Final which Nadal won in a famous five-set victory.
Walking out to a chorus of cheers, it was clear that Nadal was the crowd favourite in front of a COVID-safe capacity crowd on Rod Laver Arena. Conversely, the polarising Medvedev walked out to a mixture of cheers and boos.
Strong when receiving and stronger on serve
The Spaniard opened the serving and signalled his intent early, stamping his authority with a whipping forehand winner that sizzled past the Russian.
It was Medvedev who was looking the strongest early, forcing Nadal to play long rallies.
With the score locked at 1-1, Nadal was on the brink of going down 0-40 on his serve, before the most unlikely winner of this year’s Australian Open was hit by the world No. 5.
He followed it up with another sensational rally win, hitting a volley winner past Medvedev to get the crowd out of their seat on his way to winning a marathon 10-minute game.
The trend of Medvedev earning points on the racquet of Nadal continued, as the top seed broke his opponent’s serve to love to take a 3-2 lead.
Sweating profusely in the humid Melbourne weather, Nadal, who was searching for a first triumph at Melbourne Park in 13 years, struggled to maintain the level of the world No. 2 and was broken to love for the second consecutive game.
Medvedev, who defeated the likes of Nick Kyrgios, Felix Auger-Aliassime and Stefanos Tsitsipas en route to the final, was even stronger on serve. Remarkably, he hit 82 per cent of first serves in for the set, as he romped to a one set to love lead.
Nadal leads majority of second set but Medvedev comes back from brink
Nadal, who leads the head to head against his higher-ranked opponent 3-1, was struggling to hit first serves at the start of the second set. He held his first two service games, but they were overly lengthy.
Meanwhile, the 2021 Australian Open finalist was racing through his service holds, as Nadal continued to sweat all over the court.
Out of nowhere, a 40-shot rally ended with a backhand slice winner from Nadal and he took the break and a 3-1 lead.
The crowd noise rose as the set progressed, and in the blink of an eye Nadal led 4-1.
Just as quickly as the crowd noise reached its peak, it returned to a hush as Medvedev won two games in a row to put the match back on serve.
Such was the topsy-turvy nature of the set, ’Rafa’ hit a clever drop shot to fool an off-balance Medvedev and put himself in a position to serve for the set.
An intruder halted proceedings for a number of minutes as they worked their way past security and onto the arena.
As play got underway with the score at 5-3, Nadal saved four break points but Medvedev won the fifth to complete the fourth break of serve for the set.
The sweat on the Spaniard was so evident that he was no longer putting balls in his pocket to avoid wetting and slowing the balls down on court. He released an enormous roar of ‘vamos’ as he took eight minutes and 16 seconds to move past a pesky Medvedev and take the score to 6-5 in a marathon second set. The set then reached a decisive tiebreaker.
Nadal led for the majority of the second set, and held mini-breaks in the tiebreaker, but an extraordinary passing shot from Medvedev put him in the driving seat for a second-successive Grand Slam triumph as he took a two sets to love lead.
Such was the even nature of the second set, it took a long 84 minutes to decide the winner.
Roaring Rafa gets on the board
With both players in a fresh pair of clothing after getting changed after the second set, the first game of the third set was, believe it or not, long.
After six individual deuces on the serve of Medvedev, the 25-year-old eventually held serve in eight minutes and 39 seconds – just nine seconds shy of the second set tiebreak length.
Another huge six minute game brought the score back to 1-1 before Medvedev raced through his service game to take the edge.
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Last time the pair played against each other, it was the Russian who defeated Nadal in a close three set match at the 2020 ATP Finals and he continued to lead throughout the third set on Sunday evening.
The near-two metre giant had three break point opportunities with the score at 0-40, but the lion-hearted Nadal miraculously made his way back into the game. The Spaniard revved up the crowd after a stunning 21 shot rally levelled the score.
Not long after, the Spanish maestro hit the shot of the night, crushing a backhand winner to take a 5-4 lead over his increasingly-frustrated opponent.
With the opportunity at serving for the set, Nadal did not fail. Right in front of Rod Laver, on Rod Laver Arena, he claimed the third set to send the match into a fourth set.
With the time approaching 11:00pm local, not one of the pro-Nadal crowd left their seats as the anticipation for an all-time classic peaked.
An instant classic is not over yet
Medvedev spent a large chunk of the set changeover complaining to the umpire, after a minority of fans were yelling out between serves towards the end of the third set.
“They (the crowd) are idiots. No brains. Empty brains,” he was heard saying to the chair umpire.
Gunning for a 14th-straight Grand Slam match win, Medvedev struggled with fitness as the match moved into the fourth set. Drinking pickle juice frequently, he was tested physically by Nadal as the set began.
Nadal’s newfound tactic of moving Medvedev all around the court started paying dividends as the Russian continued to be physically challenged. A nine minute and 12 second game didn’t help the physicality improve, as Nadal found a second wind to take his own break of serve.
Medvedev sarcastically clapped the crowd as he walked to the chair which was met by a chorus of boos, as he called for the trainer to treat what appeared to be an onset of cramping in his legs.
Somehow, despite his seemingly dwindling fitness, he broke back to level the score at 2-2.
Another monster game, this time lasting 10 minutes and nine seconds, was won by Nadal as he again went up a break.
Medvedev asked the umpire to “step up” at the change of ends, as his frustration reached tipping point.
Nadal, who has won 13 Grand Slam titles since his last Melbourne Park title, had the late-night Melbourne crowd in raptures when he took a 4-2 lead as the match pushed four hours.
As Medvedev brought up two break points, a resilient ’Rafa’ reeled off four straight points to take a 5-3 lead.
On exactly the final minute of Sunday January 30th 2022, the two players walked to their chairs with the score locked at two sets all. Nadal had completed the unthinkable. He had drawn level.
The 2022 Australian Open Final was an instant classic; a final set to decide the champion.
Rafa stands alone, winning his 21st Grand Slam
With the clock ticking well past midnight, Medvedev opened the serving in the fifth set and held, albeit a tricky hold.
The longevity of both players was impressive as the set went on, their physical conditioning ultra-impressive for the biggest match of the Australian summer.
Nadal, who endured five-set clashes against Denis Shapovalov and Matteo Berrettini in his preceding two matches, continued to put the pressure on his Russian opponent as the match moved towards it’s thrilling crescendo.
Medvedev called for the trainer for a second time in the match as he lead 2-1, requesting another rub on his fatigued legs. Nadal then raced through a love game and looked the more physically prepared of the two players.
Four hours and 39 minutes had elapsed when Nadal took the lead for the first time in the match, going up 3-2 in the decider with a break in his pocket.
It was barely believable after a dominant Medvedev was on fire to take a two sets to love lead.
Like a stutter, the sixth game of the final set went beyond ten minutes, clocking a ridiculous 13 minutes and 39 seconds and six deuces. Nadal lead 4-3. The match had reached the five hour mark.
Describing the contest as an epic would not give it the justice it deserved.
One final twist was still to come, because why not?
Medvedev lifted himself from the canvas, running close to empty on fuel, to level the match at 5-5. It was truly an ultra-impressive fightback from the Russian who looked dead and buried.
From there, it was all Nadal. He won the next two games to win at 1:11am.
Cue delirium in Melbourne.
Nadal took the win in five hours and 24 minutes, 2-6 6-7(5) 6-4 6-4 7-5.
Befitting the champion who now has more Grand Slam titles than any other man, Rafael Nadal came back from the brink.
The most amazing victory from a delightful champion. A stirring comeback to win a Grand Slam he was never predicted to win.
Nadal is the second man in the Open era to win all four Grand Slams at least twice, following in the footsteps of Djokovic.
And with his favoured Roland Garros just months away, it wouldn’t surprise anyone if the Mallorca man adds a 22nd Grand Slam title to his long and illustrious list of career achievements.
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