The Spanish tennis star Rafael Nadal shook his head, as if in disbelief. Then he moved to the net to shake the hand of his opponent, Daniil Medvedev, and it was then that it seemed to sink in. Nadal stood alone in the record book with 21 career Grand Slam men’s singles titles, one more than his rivals Roger Federer and Novak Djokovic.
Suddenly, Nadal punched the air like a prizefighter, flexing his arms like a bodybuilder, pumping his fists overhead, then dropping to his knees as tears flowed. Nadal’s five-hour-and-24-minute triumph, after being down by two sets, thrilled a raucous crowd on a warm Sunday night at Rod Laver Arena. It came just a day after Ashleigh Barty of Australia won the women’s singles title, the first home court win at the Australian Open in 44 years. But if the final weekend of the first major sporting event of the year ended in singular fashion, the beginning was anything but.
Nadal made certain of that. “This has been one of the most emotional nights of my tennis career,” he told the cheering crowd, and later said: “If we put everything together, the scenario, the momentum, what it means. Yeah, without a doubt probably have been the biggest comeback of my tennis career.”
Nadal, 35, returned from a chronic foot injury that had him considering retirement late last year and then came back on Sunday in a match he trailed by two sets to win, 2-6, 6-7 (5), 6-4, 6-4, 7-5.
Though Nadal sprinted to the players’ box to embrace his father, Sebastián, he struggled to walk in the aftermath of his victory, collapsing to the floor of the players’ gymnasium and hobbling up the steps to give a post-match news conference that began at 2:42 a.m. on Monday in Melbourne. “I was not ready physically for this kind of battle, honestly,” Nadal said. “I am super, super tired in all ways. I even can’t celebrate. But it was the day to give everything, no? I enjoyed it. I enjoyed the fight. I enjoyed the emotions. In the end, to have this trophy with me means everything.”
Nadal did not only trail Medvedev, who was seeded No. 2, by two sets on Sunday. He faced three break points on his serve in the sixth game of the third set, trailing, 0-40, after Medvedev played a scrambling point. But Nadal did what he has done since he burst onto the tennis scene nearly 20 years ago as a longhaired teenager in pirate pants.
Nadal did not win a Grand Slam tournament in 2021 — losing to Djokovic in the semifinals of the French Open, the tournament where Nadal has reigned supreme, then playing only one more tournament for the rest of the season.
There were discussions about retirement as he struggled to resolve his foot problem. But Nadal remained passionate about the game, and after recovering from the coronavirus in late December, he flew to Australia to try again. When the final was over, Medvedev praised Nadal. “Huge respect for beating me because I tried my best,” he said.
Nadal, like Djokovic, has now won all four of the major tournaments at least twice. But the Grand Slam titles record has, for better or worse, become the benchmark for success in the modern game, when players routinely play all four Grand Slam tournaments. Serena Williams, who has won 23 Grand Slam titles, is still chasing Margaret Court’s record of 24. Williams, who is 40, did not compete in Melbourne because she is recovering from an injury. Federer came within one point of No. 21 in the 2019 Wimbledon final before Djokovic went on to win. Djokovic came within one match of No. 21 in last year’s U.S. Open final before Medvedev routed him in straight sets.
But Nadal surprised the field in Melbourne, as well as himself. And yet he knows the race is not quite finished. “At this moment in history, it’s true that I’m the one with the most,” he said. “Of course, I would be happy to finish with the most, but for me, it has never been an obsession. Whatever happens from now with Novak, Roger or me, we have all exceeded any expectations we could have had when we were young.”
SOURCE: THE NEW YORK TIMES
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