Rafael Nadal got to 21 first, breaking the men’s record for most Grand Slam singles titles and doing it the hard way by coming back from two sets down to beat Daniil Medvedev in an almost 5 1/2-hour Australian Open final.
Nadal was broken when serving for the championship for the first time at 5-4 in the fifth set, but he made no mistake two games later by served an ace to earn three championship points and converted it on the first attempt.
The 35-year-old Spaniard now has one more major title than Roger Federer and Novak Djokovic, his long-time rivals in the so-called Big Three.
With the 2-6, 6-7 (5), 6-4, 6-4, 7-5 win that started Sunday night, was delayed in the 84-minute second set when a protester jumped onto the court, and then finished early Monday morning, Nadal also became just the fourth man in history to win all four of the sport’s major titles at least twice.
“Good evening. No, good morning!” Nadal, looking at his watch, told the crowd at Rod Laver Arena when he finally got up for his acceptance speech at 1:30 a.m.
In the background, Rod Laver, the ageing Australian tennis great, was in the stands holding up his smartphone to capture the scenes. A woman nearby held up a sign that stated: “Rafa is the GOAT.”
For now, in terms of men’s major titles at least, Nadal is the Greatest Of All Time.
Nadal said it had been “one of the most emotional matches in my tennis career,” and he praised Medvedev for the part he played in the 5-hour, 24-minute final. It was the second longest Australian Open final ever, after Nadal’s loss to Djokovic in the 2012 decider that lasted 5:53.
His victory was even more remarkable considering Nadal flew to Australia with just two matches under his belt in the second half of 2021 because he was sidelined with a chronic foot injury that can be treated but not cured. He also overcame a bout of COVID-19.
“For me, it’s just amazing. Being honest, one month and a half ago, I didn’t know if I’d be able to play on the tour again,” Nadal said. “Without a doubt, (it’s) probably been one of the most emotional months in my tennis career.
“The huge support I’ve received for the last three weeks will stay in my heart for the rest of my life.”
Nadal won his first Australian Open title in 2009 and lost four other finals at Melbourne Park before his dramatic win over U.S. Open champion Medvedev. His conversion rate in major finals is now 21 out of 29. Federer and Djokovic each have 20 majors from 31 finals appearances.
Medvedev, who was aiming to be the first man in the Open era to win his second Grand Slam title at the very next major, was ever-so-close to spoiling another 21st celebration.
Djokovic was chasing the same record at the U.S. Open last year, and a calendar-year Grand Slam, when Medvedev beat him in straight sets in the final.
Federer also had his chance at 21, but Djokovic stopped that when he saved match points before winning the 2019 Wimbledon final.
Medvedev now joins Andy Murray among those who’ve lost the final at the next major tournament after their career breakthrough at the highest level.
It was just the fourth time Nadal has rallied from two sets down to win a best-of-five-set match, and the first since a fourth-round victory in 2007 at Wimbledon over Mikhail Youzhny.
He’s is the first Australian Open champion to come back to win after dropping the first two sets of the final since Roy Emerson in 1965.