Nadal came back from two sets down to defeat Daniil Medvedev.
MELBOURNE, Australia (AP) — 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 serving 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, Nadal also became just the fourth man in history to win all four of the sport’s major titles at least twice.
Nadal and Medvedev packed a lot of drama into the final that started Sunday night, was delayed for a while in the 84-minute second set when a protester jumped onto the court, and then finished early Monday morning.
“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.
Medvedev continued his love-hate relationship with Australian crowds, following trouble in earlier victories over Nick Kyrgios and Stefanos Tsitsipas. He stayed calm for the first two sets before complaining about the yelling and noise between first and second serves.
After Nadal broke him in the third game of the fourth set, on a double-fault, Medvedev walked to the changeover giving an ironic thumbs-up to the crowd.
There was an exchange of breaks but Nadal got the upper hand after a long game when he converted his seventh breakpoint with an angled backhand winner.
Medvedev urged chair umpire John Blom to shut the crowd up.
“Step up Man, it’s the final of a Grand Slam. Please is not enough,” he said. “They’re idiots. With idiots, please doesn’t work.”
After Medvedev served a double-fault to open the fifth set, Blom warned the crowd that anyone yelling between first and second serves could get kicked out by security.
Medvedev did manage to hold and the fifth went with serve until Nadal broke in the fifth game and then, crucially, held for a 4-2 lead after a 13-minute game that went to deuce six times.
That would not be the end of the drama, though, with Nadal broken in the 10th game as he served for the match, but responding quickly with another service break to set up his second chance.
Nadal was the only one of the Big Three who had a chance to claim the record solo in Australia.
Federer is still recovering from knee surgery and Djokovic was sensationally deported from Australia on the eve of the tournament after a dramatic 11-day saga over his visa status because he failed to meet the country’s strict COVID-19 vaccination rules.
Medvedev recovered his composure for his post-match speech, praising Nadal for his incredible endurance.
“Tough to talk about (5 1/2) hours and losing. I want to congratulate Rafa,” the 25-year-old Russian said. “What he did today was amazing.
“You’re an amazing champion.”