Why this might have been Rafa Nadal’s greatest grand slam final

To rank this Australian Open resurrection and triumph as Rafael Nadal’s greatest in a major final might be a case of recency bias or Australian parochialism.

But it must be up there with any of Nadal’s 20 previous victories in grand slam final, even with the rainy 2008 Wimbledon final in which he pipped Roger Federer, (9-7 in the fifth set), for the first time on Roger’s turf.

Rafael Nadal: 21 grand slams and counting.Credit:Getty Images

Granted, Daniil Medvedev isn’t Federer or Novak Djokovic – and the Russian lost the plot somewhat mid-match, becoming distracted and complaining about the crowd as the Rafa wave built and built to the point that it swept him away.

Yet, consider what Nadal surmounted to win this record 21st major: a two sets to love deficit against an opponent a decade younger, extremely limited match play in the months before this Australian Open – he’d barely played over five months, missing both the US Open and Wimbledon – and a game that was decidedly off-key for the first two sets.

Oh, and Nadal had contracted COVID in Abu Dhabi in December, further messing with an already thin lead-in to the Australian Open – not what you’d want to prepare for seven matches that conclude with a five-hour final.

“He is the greatest competitor our sport has ever seen,” said Lleyton Hewitt from the commentary booth. Who’s to argue with Hewitt, who knows a bit about competitive spirit?

Nadal had not won from a two-set deficit in a major final until this long journey into night. And Medvedev also fought gamely to the end, breaking Nadal when the Spaniard served for the match at 5-4 in the fifth.

Medvedev didn’t succumb. He just isn’t Nadal.

The Russian had lost to Nadal in the 2019 US Open final in five sets, too. For Nadal, the 21st slam was also his second Australian Open title (his first another epic against Federer in 2009), ending a run of four finals defeats – he’d lost twice to Djokovic, once to Stan Wawrinka and to Federer in 2017.

If he had the 21st slam to gain, Nadal also had much to lose.

He’d not been as convincing in his previous matches here as Medvedev, needing a medical time out in his five-set survival in the quarters against Denis Shapovalov, who felt Rafa had exploited the time-out rules.

This final was so exhausting that it stretched on like the 2012 denouement here between Nadal and Djokovic – at the end, it was the second-longest grand slam final in tennis history, behind that 2012 never-ender.

Momentum shifts were regular, as were breaks of serve, break points (Nadal needed seven to make a crucial break in the fourth set) and Medvedev complaints about the raucous cheering that accompanied his mistakes – a stance that only intensified the support for the iconic veteran.

Nadal was an honorary Aussie on the night, the roaring for him – and against his testy opponent – was about as loud as the sound that greeted Ash Barty in her drought-breaker for Australia the previous evening. While the chair umpire did heed the Russian’s complaints and ask the crowd not to cheer the first fault, it hardly subdued the pro-Nadal noise, nor Nadal.

Nadal had been out-gunned. For two sets, he made clangers aplenty – about double the unforced errors of steady Medy. He wasn’t getting quick kills on serve, as his opponent did. He missed backhands and even on the fearsome forehand.

His game style, too, was clearly more labour-intensive than the younger man. This was reflected in Nadal’s sodden shorts and headband, as he kept wiping his forehand. He couldn’t find his first serve when he needed it for the first couple of hours. He was searching for answers, unable to find the balance between aggressive and defence – against a ball machine to rival himself.

We were preparing to both write him off in this final, and write up the generational change storyline. Medvedev had taken down Djokovic, convincingly, in the US Open final last September. Now he was on the brink of doing the double, with Rafa on the ropes.

Thus, there were shades of the fabled Rumble in the Jungle, between Muhammad Ali and George Foreman, in this final, when the former did the “rope a dope,” soaking up punishment before unleashing an unexpected counter-offensive that floored the younger, bigger fighter, who’d punched himself out.

He made drop shots, volleys that were Federer-esque at his feet, improbable passing shots on both sides. His wristy forehands were whipped past the Russian.

He turned what had looked like a rout into a cage match.

“I was amazed,” Medvedev said of Nadal, adding, “after the match, I asked him, ‘are you tired?’”

Nadal had the answers during the match, fewer immediately afterwards. “I really can’t explain the feeling I have now,” he said.

No explanation was necessary.

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