RAFA NADAL has become the most successful player in the history of men’s professional tennis – thanks to the greatest comeback of his sensational career.
Spain’s racket king required nearly five-and-a-half hours of pulsating action to break down the will of No2 Daniil Medvedev 2-6 6-7 6-4 6-4 7-5 in the most epic of Australian Open finals.
Bottle, heart, desire, determination, physically conditioning – all those qualities were on display as Nadal sealed the title close after 1.11am in Melbourne.
It takes him up to 21 majors – and counting – and propels him beyond Novak Djokovic and Roger Federer for the first time in his career.
If he carries on like this, then No22 will surely arrive in his favourite Paris backyard this summer.
Inevitably, this was no straightforward coronation under the Rod Laver Arena lights.
Nadal did it the hard way, coming from two sets down, the first time he had done that in a best-of-five-set match since Wimbledon 2007.
Given he had six months out at the end of last season, undergoing treatment on his left foot which left him fearing for his future on the Tour, this will surely go down as his greatest achievement.
It was a hot, humid and sultry evening with the roof open and in front of 15,000 people, who were witnessing the finale to a tournament that had started in embarrassment and controversy with the deportation of defending men’s champion Djokovic by the Aussie Government.
The intensity on the court from the onset was extraordinary, neither man being able to ease their way into their service game.
Nadal, in particular, had to change his shirt a few times and was dripping in sweat, using cold-ice towel collars and the air conditioning tube to cool himself down.
The rock-solid defensive tactics of Medvedev proved pivotal in the first set as he twice broke the unsettled Spaniard and was up in all of the key stats areas.
It was the first time Nadal had lost the opening set of a Slam match for two years.
In the ninth game of the second set, with Nadal leading 5-3 and aiming for parity, there was a major security breach which could have overshadowed the entire occasion.
An intruder ran on to the court but was swiftly tackled and dragged away by quick-reacting guards – while other personnel immediately ran over to protect the players.
The unwelcome individual was carrying a sign saying ‘ABOLISH REFUGEES DETENTION’ but the moment to protest to a global audience was denied as TV cameras panned away.
It all happened in a flash and it is not known how much disruption it caused to the players’ focus or concentration. Perhaps Nadal had the greater cause of complaint.
Momentum in the 84-MINUTE second set swung one way and then the other – there were four converted break points – and eventually it went to a tie-break.
It was Medvedev who prevailed and in his typically zany style, he tried to whip up the crowd and make the point to those who had cheered his double faults.
For Nadal, the 17 hours previously spent on court over the past two weeks, the gruelling rallies, not to mention the fact he had all that time off last year was supposed to work against him.
Yet remarkably the 35-year-old summoned up the inner reserves to win in five sets in energy-sapping conditions.
Medvedev, who twice had treatment for his tired legs, was increasingly unhappy throughout the match with fans who were cheering out at untimely moments, calling them ’empty brains’.
When he doubled-faulted to give Nadal a break early in the fourth set, fans were off their seats in celebration.
The fifth game of the fourth set was an epic, containing SEVEN break points until Medvedev cracked, Nadal winning it with a backhand pass shot after a crafty drop shot.
Medvedev returned to his chair and remonstrated with the umpire for not clamping down on dissent.
The Moscovite said: “Set up man, it’s the final of a Grand Slam final. It is not enough. If you have to tell them 25 times, then say it 25 times. They are idiots.”
The umpire had to remind overexcited spectators that if they continue to shout out during points and rallies they would be ejected from the premises.
In the decider, Nadal got the all-important break to lead 3-2, putting him in front for the first time since 2-1 in the opening set – more than four hours earlier.
He came out to serve for history at 5-4 but incredibly Medvedev broke back, thanks in part to a rare double fault at 30-15.
But the Russian handed the advantage straight back in the 11th game with a wild forehand long and give Nadal a second chance.
This time he would not be denied, setting up match point with an ace and then sealing it with a backhand volley.
More to follow…