For the first time since Roger Federer lifted the Wimbledon trophy in 2009, men’s tennis has a new name at the top of the list of major achievements.
Victory at the Australian Open for Rafael Nadal on Sunday earned the Spaniard his 21st grand slam title, edging him ahead of Federer and Novak Djokovic, following a match that encapsulated so much of Nadal’s career.
Firstly, he had to overcome fitness issues. Nadal’s entry to the tournament was in doubt just a few weeks ago, and his run to the final followed a return from a long injury lay-off that, as has been the case with so many injuries over the last decade, threatened to end his career.
Next was the opponent. After winning some hard-fought matches against difficult opponents in reaching the final, he still had to overcome arguably the strongest player on the ATP Tour.
Daniil Medvedev had tested Nadal to his limit when the players met in the 2019 US Open final, demonstrating every quality needed to become a grand slam champion of the future – a feat which he achieved at last year’s US Open thanks to a straight sets win over Novak Djokovic.
The age difference might also be cited as a disadvantage, with only Federer and Ken Rosewall having achieved grand slam at an older age in the Open era. But the fitness levels shown not only Nadal, but also Djokovic and Federer at the same age are testament to the hard work by all three legendary figures of the sport, and speak of their determination to continue competing for the sport’s biggest prizes.
And there was the weight of history on the shoulders of Nadal, and although a glittering career is full of evidence that he copes well in high pressure moments, there have been other major finals that Nadal has been on course to win, before ultimately missing out on the trophy – particularly on the courts at Melbourne.
With numerous factors creating an already-challenging evening, Nadal probably didn’t need to be two sets down and facing three break points at a crucial period during a third set that would have given Medvedev a 4-2 lead and put him just two games away from a second consecutive major.
At that moment it felt inevitable that Nadal would be on the end of a scoreline as comprehensive as the defeat Djokovic was handed in New York. It wouldn’t be quite as emphatic a loss as the defeat Nadal suffered against Djokovic in Australia four years earlier – an occasion that represents Nadal’s only straight sets loss in a 29 grand slam appearances – but everything looked set up for Medvedev to finish the job sooner rather than later.
That Nadal won the game was surprising enough, but even when he won the third set, it was though the expected result would merely be delayed – albeit with some added respectability to the scoreline.
Instead, the actual events were scarcely believable; Nadal going from strength-to-strength as the match – and the hours – went on.
Once a fifth set was reached, only when Nadal failed to serve out the match did Medvedev look to have thwarted the momentum that had so swung so much in Nadal’s favour. But it still only led to the match being extended by a further service game each, as Nadal showed the combination of quality and determination that he’s renowned for and after breaking the serve of his opponent once more with the set tied at 5-5, he made no mistake in finishing off the match when handed a second opportunity to serve it out.
A second Australian Open also means than Nadal has won each grand slam even at least twice, matching a feat also achieved by Novak Djokovic – who last year also came from two sets down to win a second French Open title.
With Djokovic having been absent in Australia following the Covid-related controversy that arised when he entered the country, it’s a certainty that the Serb will be determined to add to his own tally of 20 grand slam titles. Djokovic was a single win away from not only breaking the record himself at last year’s US Open, but also completing a calendar grand slam in the process. If that wasn’t disappointing enough, the denial of a chance to win a 21st major title with a tenth success on his favourite surface will simply add to his motivation for the remainder of this season.
Djokovic’s absence caused some to claim that Nadal’s win would require a footnote, as if to suggest that it simply wouldn’t have been possible if Djokovic has been competing. Whilst it is fair to say that Djokovic would have started as the tournament favourite, there was no guarantee that he would have gone all the way.
And having missed only one grand slam event since his debut in the 2005 Australian Open, compared to 11 that Nadal has been forced to sit out of during his career, there have been more than enough opportunities for Djokovic to capitalise on the absence of a big rival – with no subsequent success being subject to an explanatory note citing any of Nadal’s injuries.
The rivalry will undoubtedly continue, and Nadal may not ultimately finish his career with the highest tally of grand slam wins. But for now, he stands on his own as the most successful male player of all time – and absolutely no asterisk is needed beside such a phenomenal achievement.