From the brink of retirement to grand slam history, Rafael Nadal refuses to be beaten

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What makes people great? How is greatness achieved? How is it sustained? And what is it about those who are great that allows them to access a plane no one has reached before?

Those intangible questions never truly get answered. But as Rafael Nadal stepped one ahead of fellow modern greats Novak Djokovic and Roger Federer with his 21st grand slam title, becoming the first to win the Australian Open from 2-0 down, against the best hardest opponent he could have faced on this hard surface, the clues can probably be found in the endless supply of towels that soaked up the Spaniard’s sweat over the course of this five hour and 24-minute epic.

“Do you get tired?” quipped Daniil Medvedev as the pair stood side by side on the stage hastily erected after 1am local time on Monday. Purely rhetorical and, yet, not quite given how stretches of this epic played out. Both had spent 17 hours on court to reach this point and for the first half there was no doubt Medvedev, at 25, was wearing them more comfortably than the man 10 years his senior. Nadal lost four kilograms in his quarter-final five-setter with Denis Shapovalov. By the end, it seemed more of him had been soaked up than was left on him. “ I feel destroyed right now,” he told EuroSport moments after stepping out of the arena.

“Are you ever beaten?” might be the more appropriate question. A few months ago, top-tier tennis as a whole seemed an ambitious prospect. He seemed done then, he was expected to lose to US Open champion Medvedev’s superior hard court game, and he was all but down for the count when it became clear he would need five sets to avoid defeat. Last year, defeat to Djokovic in the semi-final of his home away from home at the French Open was supposed to be the beginning of the end.

Even in the Serbian’s absence, Nadal’s chances of victory were held up on the loose foundations of reputation rather than form. Certainly watching Nadal at 35 has been humbling, even in victory as he sat on a chair during the presentations at the end with Medvedev standing alongside like someone who had given up their seat to an elderly commuter on the London Underground.

The frame is sleeker, in keeping with how superstar athletes in the twilights of their careers strip down to the necessary muscles to give the joints an easier ride. That Popeye left bicep has shrunk, and his shorts a little baggier meaning the infamous pre-serve de-wedgie routine is now far less invasive. Even the hair, once flowing, is wearing thin. There’s an element of two-term presidency to his look right now.

Much of this superficial “analysis” bears out in the broader scheme, with just three tournaments in the last six months. A 21st grand slam title was far from his mind coming off the back of six months out due to an issue with his left foot and then being struck down with Covid-19.

Rafael Nadal moves clear of Novak Djokovic and Roger Federer (AFP via Getty Images)
Rafael Nadal moves clear of Novak Djokovic and Roger Federer (AFP via Getty Images)

Naturally, he has looked leggy as the last fortnight went on, particularly off the back of his five-set quarter-final. The semi against Matteo Berrettini, while a routine victory over four sets on the scoresheets, relied on a degree of big match nous, particularly after Berrettini took the third 6-3.

Indeed much of this run to becoming the fourth oldest to take part in an Australian Open men’s final has been a lesson in curbing instincts and not relying on old tricks. The energy reserves are no longer infinite, and “conservation” has been a buzzword around his camp. Accordingly, that powerful forehand, along with the nimble variations, were used sparingly. That booming first serve kept behind perspex along with the direction to “break in case of emergency”. All of which went out of the window after a humbling first set.

Three games in and Nadal was dripping with sweat as he held firm on Medvedev’s two break points. It was a gruelling 10-minute back and forth ending with ball boys and girls scrabbling to dry the pools of sweat on Nadal’s baseline. Medvedev responded by winning the next five games in a row, taking the opener 6-2.

The reaction in the second was in keeping with the groundswell of noise within the Rod Laver Arena. Grand slam crowds always favour the greats, and the support ticked up a decibel as this one in front of them had assumed the role of underdog. A stunning backhand slice to close out a 40-shot rally led to Nadal’ first break, in the fourth game, then a forehand drop shot wrong-footed his opponent for the second as Medvedev’s serve momentarily deserted him.

Alas, the Russian responded with breaks of his own, saving set point and forcing errors with some relentless deep shots to the limits of the court. And the most telling blow came in the tiebreaker – a passing shot with Nadal up to the net which put him two sets up. That set-point was the first time Medvedev was ahead in a second set lasting 84 minutes.

Nadal was physically ‘destroyed’ after the five-hour epic (AFP via Getty Images)
Nadal was physically ‘destroyed’ after the five-hour epic (AFP via Getty Images)

His celebratory goading of the crowd before returning to his seat felt like a word to them that their goodwill towards Nadal was only worth so much. Yet it was from that point their influence seemed because that little bit more pronounced. Cheers greeted every Medvedev mistake, whether missed volleys or awry serves. He responded with sarcastic applause and more meaningful remonstrations with the umpire - all gripes that were totally justified. Nevertheless, as he unravelled, Nadal kept schtum and continued his ascent from rock bottom.

He peeled off 14 winners in the third set, then held his serve better in the fourth. Medvedev’s third double fault provided an early break before Nadal peeled off just his second ace to take a 5-3 lead that was eventually cashed in as a 6-4 to take us to a decider.

By then, Melbourne had ticked past midnight. With that, a new day felt like a new opportunity. Everything before it - the last four hours of Sunday night, the 21 hours it had taken for both to get here across the previous two weeks - now obsolete in the earliest hour of Monday morning.

Nadal emerged the fresher of the two, charging into a forehand winner to break the fifth game and maintain the advantage on serve despite giving up three break points. Suddenly those instincts he had been curbing, the strength he had been preserving and confidence that had been kept to himself was on full view.

After a covert route to the final, the silencer was well and truly off, particularly in the break that had him serving for the title with shots from deep that turned defence into attack. A third and final ace gave him three championship points. He only needed one.

To do all this on the surface least suited to him adds an unnecessary extra dollop of mayo on the feat. His only other win here came in 2009 followed by four final defeats, including to love for the first of Djokovic’s three in a row in 2019. Not since 2007 - at Wimbledon against Mikhail Youzhny - has he come back from two sets down to win a match at a major. On so many fronts, whether conditions of man and play, or long and short term projections, this was not meant to be. And yet here we are.

“Maybe that was going to be my last Australian open,” said Nadal with a wry smile. “But there is plenty of energy to keep going.”

The GOAT conversation now shifts his way off the back of this emphatic stamp on the legacy card. Roland Garros awaits in May, along with the daylight of what could be number 22. A year that started with an emphasis on recovery is already looking like one of renaissance for Nadal. Not even he saw that coming.