MELBOURNE - Rafa Nadal edged Daniil Medvedev in a classic Australian Open final on Sunday, roaring back from two sets down to claim a record 21st Grand Slam title only months after fearing his glorious career might be over due to injury.

With Novak Djokovic forced out by deportation and Roger Federer recovering from knee surgery, the Spanish great is now one major title clear of his ‘Big Three’ rivals after surviving the 2-6 6-7(5) 6-4 6-4 7-5 thriller at Rod Laver Arena. “It was one of the most emotional matches in my tennis career,” Nadal said at the post-match presentation.

“It’s just amazing now being gone one month and a half ago I didn’t know if I will be able to be back on the tour playing tennis again. “And today I’m here in front of all of you having this trophy with me.” 

Riding a wave of raucous support from the crowd, a vintage Nadal pulled off his greatest escape to deny Medvedev again, less than three years after leaving the Russian heartbroken in five sets at the 2019 U.S. Open final. In a five-hour 24-minute epic steeped in drama, Nadal was two points from the title but was broken as he served for the match at 5-4.

He held firm to break Medvedev again and served out the match to love, rushing in to deliver a backhand volley as a stunning coup de grace. Dropping his racket, Nadal shook his head and grinned, then kicked a tennis ball away and pumped his fists in delight. It was a triumph that defied time and logic, with the 35-year-old fighting back from a two-set deficit for the first time in 15 years -- the last time being against Mikhail Youzhny in the fourth round of Wimbledon in 2007. 

Having suffered four final defeats in 2012, 2014, 2017 and 2019, Nadal can now savour a second Melbourne Park crown, 13 years after beating Federer in another epic decider in 2009. The long hair and pirate shorts of that decade have fallen by the way-side, but the class and fighting spirit endure in the face of Nadal’s titanic battles to recover from injuries. 

Having missed Wimbledon due to fatigue and the U.S. Open because of a chronic condition in his left foot, Nadal was on the brink of quitting in late-2021 and felt blessed just to turn up at Melbourne Park. His ability to win seven matches felt miraculous for the Spaniard, who joins Djokovic, Rod Laver and Roy Emerson as the only men to take each Grand Slam title at least twice. 

Thrashed by Djokovic in last year’s final, U.S. Open champion Medvedev has now lost three out of the four Grand Slam deciders he has contested. “Tough to talk after five hours and 30 minutes and losing,” said Medvedev who shuffled and rolled his eyes during a lengthy speech by a local tennis official. “What you (Rafa) did today was amazing.

“After the match, I just asked him: ‘Are you tired?’ “It was insane ... I thought you are going to get tired, maybe just a little, but you won the match. “You’re an amazing champion and I think you guys (Federer, Djokovic and Nadal) have a good rivalry still. It’s not over yet.”  

It was a match that had everything, even a crowd invasion as a spectator jumped on the court to protest Australia’s detention of refugees as Nadal struggled to serve out the second set. Nadal failed to convert a set point and Medvedev made him pay, sealing the set with a crisp backhand passing shot. 

The Russian hammed up his villain persona, flapping his hands at the crowd with a smirk. It proved a red rag to a bull as both Nadal and the crowd united to harry the Russian through the next two sets. Medvedev was left begging for crowd control from the chair umpire as Nadal stormed back into the game. “They are idiots. No brains. Empty brains. Probably in their life it must be very bad,” he said at a change of ends of the fans. 

Medvedev’s frustrations only grew and he became sluggish in his movement as the match wore on. He frowned as a trainer worked on his left thigh but dragged himself out to make a game of it to the finish. In the end, it was Nadal dictating terms to the Russian and showing himself and the world that further records may yet be at his mercy.