The battle for supremacy in the ‘Big Three’ standings took an undulating but spectacular turn Down Under.
AO 2022: Rafa redemption complete with No.21
An instant classic Australian Open men’s singles final witnessed Rafael Nadal pull off one of his most improbable but significant Grand Slam triumphs.
Athletes from all corners, a plethora of tennis players toasted the Spanish gladiator, with one congratulatory message standing above the rest.
“What a match! To my friend and great rival, heartfelt congratulations on becoming the first man to win 21 Grand Slam singles titles,” said Roger Federer on his Instagram post.
“A few months ago we were joking about both being on crutches. Amazing. Never underestimate a great champion. Your incredible work ethic, dedication and fighting spirit are an inspiration to me and countless others around the world.
“I am so proud to share this era with you and honoured to play a role in pushing you to achieve more, as you have done for me for the past 18 years.”
Federer’s summary pretty much hits the nail on the head. Nadal now on 21 majors, Federer locked level with Novak Djokovic on 20 at the top of the men’s Grand Slam Roll of Honour.
As ever, Nadal discussed astonishing success with scoops of humility and passion.
“It's amazing to achieve another Grand Slam at this moment of my career. Just means a lot to me. Of course, I know it's a special number, 21,” insisted Nadal, the first player to recover from two sets down in the Open Era during the Australian Open final.
“I feel honoured. I feel lucky to achieve one more very special thing in my tennis career. I don't care much if I am the one or not the one or the best of the history. For me it's about enjoying nights like today. That means everything for me. Means even more to achieve the second Australian Open more than any other thing.”
Lifting another Grand Slam in his mid-30s is impressive enough, add on top the Spaniard has become just the fourth man to win each major twice and all done so following five months on the sidelines.
Back to September 2021 and Nadal posted a picture on his social media channels wearing an ankle cast, standing on crutches after a medical procedure. There were conversations in the Nadal camp about retirement.
However, into 2022, with minimal off-season training, the 90-time titlist has scored his most improbable triumph yet.
“We were trying things. And for a long period of time without any success, with zero success. After all the things that I went through all my career, of course at my age, knowing that you have an injury that you can't recover from that, the doubts are there,” added the Spaniard.
“Mentally sometimes was heartbreaking. All the spirit, all the working, discipline, every single day make a big difference for me.”
“If we put everything together, the scenario, the momentum, what means. Without a doubt has been the biggest comeback of my tennis career.”
In synergy with Federer, the Swiss maestro returned from six months out from his first knee surgery at the 2017 Australian Open, aged 35 too, defying the odds to reach the final and then defeat Nadal in an absolute five-set blockbuster.
Now Nadal has pieced together his own redemption.
The 2009 champion has experienced four final heartaches at Melbourne Park since his opening triumph. A back injury ruined his chances in 2014, but the ones that stung were 2012 versus Djokovic and that night against Federer in 2017.
On both occasions Nadal held a fifth set break scoreboard lead, but ended up with the runner’s up plate.
During Sunday’s five hour and 24-minute marathon, Nadal let a 3-2 break advantage slip in the fifth set, before eventually stealing away the trophy.
Nadal admits the previous anguish on Rod Laver Arena had been all too present in his mind.
“I just wanted to keep believing till the end. Just fight, just keep belief on trying to find a solution,” explained Nadal.
“I was repeating to myself during the whole match, 2012, 2017, 2014 with the injury, too, I have been in that position couple of times in my career here in Australia. Tonight, have been unforgettable. I feel very lucky. At the same time, I fought to come back to the tour and to give myself a chance to keep playing tennis.”
From Nadal’s maiden Grand Slam triumph at Roland-Garros 2005 to Sunday night in Melbourne, there were the trademark trophy bites, but the emotions had a different intensity this time.
It gave the Spaniard an extra sparkle during his post-match speech.
“One month and a half ago I might have said this would be my last Australian Open, but now that's plenty of energy to keep going. I'll do my best to see you next year.”
That’s quite the statement, but first Nadal has plenty more to attack in 2022.
“Have been more emotional than the first one (2005). No doubt about that. At latest stages of your career, I think you are able to enjoy more these moments because you know the chances are less,” continued the 35-year-old.
“When you are 19, when I achieved the first, of course is super special, but you know if you are playing well, you're going to keep having chances to enjoy moments.
“I don't know what can happen on clay or not. I have hopefully some events before clay. Just enjoying these moments, hope to share with the family this unforgettable moment, then I'm going to think what's next for me.”