Daniil Medvedev didn’t take his eyes off Rafael Nadal for most of their Australian Open epic. After approaching the net, he’d back paddle to the baseline, tracking his opponent’s every twitch while his ears took in the pandemonium in the house. At the other end, Nadal, invisible blinkers in place, was the picture of a prize-fighter who had turned inwards, his gaze clapping on the wiry pro across the net only briefly as he prepared to serve.
Match play for Nadal is all about his own fight. It has little to do with that savage forehand or a first serve that never got out of bed and everything to do with staying competitive. Each shot, every point. It’s in his DNA. That’s perhaps why when the scoreboard told him that he was down two-sets-to-love, staring at three breakpoints in the third set, a loveless 0-40, he leaned on the chances he had in that tumultuous second essay. Where he’d found a way before losing it like a billionaire on a night out.
“Two sets to love up, I was like, go for him, go for more,” Medvedev said. “In fifth set, I was like make him run. The way he played at the four-hour mark I was surprised.”
The 35-year-old kept running, his surgically patched left-foot holding up against the demands of the job. Even though he was going over, with the glaring regularity of a traffic delinquent, on crucial points the Spaniard kept pressing, refusing to back off.
“I don’t want to say ‘fight’, we all know that Rafa fights,” the Russian said. “The way he played all the sets, even in tough moments. . . huge respect for beating me because I tried my best. I really tried.”
While the decibel level of the capacity crowd at the Rod Laver Arena had dropped after the second set, it exploded into the Melbourne night following the third. They were high on what was unfolding before them. When Nadal played Roger Federer in the French Open semifinals in 2019, only a very small section of fans on the majestic Philippe Chatrier court were for him. When the king of clay took on the dust storm, uncorking a control and cunning rarely seen on a tennis court, the silence was audible. Nadal was Roland Garros‘ 11-time champion at that point.
After the 5 hour 24-minute final, that started on Sunday evening and carried into the early hours of Monday, the Spaniard paid obeisance to the fans. He had just demonstrated in the match what he had earlier fashioned in his career -comeback from the dead.
“Knowing that you have an injury that you can’t recover from, not being able to do the things that you need to do is painful, heart-breaking even sometimes,” said Nadal, who had been reduced to the sidelines following the French Open last year, returning briefly in August, playing two matches, winning one.
“We were trying things without any success for a long period of time,” said Nadal of his left foot. He even dabbled with coming to Melbourne only to say goodbye. The 35-year-old, who had his foot operated on in November, was down with Covid the following month. He arrived in Melbourne then without great expectations. He triumphed in his opening tournament, an ATP 250 Series event, beating American Maxime Cressy, who was ranked outside the top-100 then, in the final.
Nothing Nadal had experienced in the last weeks, however, could’ve prepared him for Melbourne Park, where he dismantled the best of the NextGen -No. 30 Karen Kachanov, No. 14 Denis Shapovalov, No. 7 Matteo Berrettini and No. 2 Medvedev. “I was not ready for these kind of battles physically,” Nadal said. “I couldn’t practice enough, but I gave it everything that I have inside.” That much was obvious.
In Pics: Nadal comes from two sets down to make history with 21st Slam
<p>Rafael Nadal roared back from two sets down to win a titanic five-set duel with Daniil Medvedev and claim a record 21st Grand Slam men’s title in the Australian Open final on Sunday. (Reuters Photo)</p>