A vintage Rafael Nadal on Sunday survived an epic Australian Open 2022 men's singles final against Daniil Medvedev in Melbourne to become the first male tennis player to win 21 Grand Slam titles. The 35-year-old Spaniard looked down and out after two topsy-turvy sets against the world number 2, but fought back to claim the season-opening Major in five sets 2-6, 6(5)-7, 6-4, 6-4, 7-5, which lasted five hours and 24 minutes.
With the second Australian Open crown, 13 years after his first in 2009, Nadal broke probably the most famous tie in sports, leaving Roger Federer and Novak Djokovic behind in tennis' race to immortality. And the 'King of Clay' did that in his quintessential style, chasing every point, making his Russian opponent play that one extra shot.
The focus in the run-up to the season's opening Major was clearly on the unvaccinated Djokovic, who was deported after two failed attempts to stay Down Under. The Serbian world number one was bidding to complete his tenth title at the iconic Rod Laver Arena and become the first male player to win 21 Grand Slam singles titles.
But as the tournament progressed, the focus shifted to the vaccinated Nadal, with a recuperating Roger Federer also absent, as the tennis world continues to be enamoured by the 'Big Three'. But Medvedev was there, standing tall and ready to script his own history. A win would have made the 25-year-old from Moscow the first male player in the Open Era to win back-to-back Grand Slams in successive tournaments for the first two Majors.
The Russian, who dismantled Djokovic in the US Open final four months ago in New York, looked primed to beat Nadal in his fourth Major final and second in Melbourne. Medvedev lost his maiden Slam final, US Open 2019, to Nadal in five sets (5–7, 3–6, 7–5, 6–4, 4–6). Then lost another, to Djokovic in the Australian Open final last year in straight sets (7-5 6-2, 6-2) as the Serbian started a dream calendar year with a virtuoso performance.
Following the form and predictions, Medvedev dictated the terms, calling the shots like a skilled matador to take the first two sets. At 4-4 in the third set, Medvedev even found time to join the partisan crowd to applaud the Spaniard's 15-40 lead for three break points.
But Nadal eventually broke Medvedev for a 5-4 lead as Laver himself witnessed Nadal return to the seat with a purposeful walk. Until then, the Russian stood like a wall. It was followed by a game to love for Nadal and his first set, which lasted one hour and four minutes. That announced the start of something magnificent.
Nadal broke Medvedev for the fourth time in the match to take a 2-1 lead in the must-win penultimate set. Then, it was Medvedev's turn. The set became a slugfest as Nadal broke the serve with a double-handed passing shot. Nadal took a 4-3 lead as the final approached the four-hour mark.
Nadal, bidding to win his second Australian Open, 13 years after his first, took the fourth set 6-4 in one hour and three minutes.
Nadal finally got his first real opening in the fifth game of the final set, breaking Medvedev to take a 3-2 lead. And for the first time in the night, Nadal held his future in his own hands.
After that, all he needed to do was to hold serve. But it didn't quite happen that way as Medvedev fought back to make it 5-5. Then Nadal got to serve for the match, championship and the 21st Grand Slam again, at 6-5. This time, he made it count.
Now with his second set of all four Majors, Nadal willl head to Paris for French Open, where he will hope to make it 22, two more than his great rivals Federer and Djokovic.
Match Stats: Rafael Nadal - Daniil Medvedev
Winners: 69 - 76
Points Won: 182 - 189
Unforced Errors: 68 - 52
Max Games Win In Row: 3 - 5
Aces: 3 - 23
Double Faults: 5 - 5
Break Points Saved: 16/22 - 15/22
What they said after the Melbourne classic
"It's tough to talk after five hours and 30 minutes. I want to congratulate Rafa, what you did was amazing. I tried to play but I was really tired. The level was really high.
"You raised the level after two sets, I thought you might get tired. You are an amazing champion. You guys have a great rivalry and it is not over yet," Medvedev, now a two-time finalist in Melbourne.
Nadal said he will try his "very, very best" to be in Melbourne next year.
"I know it's a tough moment - Daniil you are amazing I have been in this position. I don't have any doubt that you will have this trophy a couple of times in your career because you are amazing. It has been one of the most emotional matches of my tennis career. All the best to you in the future."
This was the second-longest Australian Open final after Novak Djokovic's five-set win in 5 hours and 53 minutes against Nadal in 2012.