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 five hours and 24 minutes 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.
Rafa Nadal won the Australian Open and his historic 21st Grand Slam in epic fashionCredit: Getty
He collapsed to the court after putting his backhand volley away to secure victoryCredit: AP
Nadal got his hands on the trophy after five hours and 24 minutes on courtCredit: AFP
Nadal surpassed Roger Federer and Novak Djokovic with the stunning victory
Bottle, heart, desire, determination, physical conditioning – all those qualities were on display as Nadal sealed the title close at gone 1am 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.
Play was suspended briefly in the second set when a spectator jumped down from the standsCredit: Reuters
Security and police raced on court to protect the players and evict the activistCredit: Rex
Medvedev was at his relentless best throughout the first two sets of the contestCredit: EPA
Medvedev whipped up the crowd after sealing the second set in styleCredit: Reuters
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 three times 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: “Step 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.
Medvedev was unhappy with the fans shouting out in the crowdCredit: Reuters
It was gruelling stuff in the heat of the Australian eveningCredit: AFP
Spaniard Nadal had the overwhelming support of the crowdCredit: Getty
The Melbourne sky put on a show like the players on the courtCredit: Getty
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.
When he clinched the win, Nadal dropped his racket, smiled, shook his head in disbelief, booted a tennis ball into the crowd and then dropped to knees.
He went over to his players box and celebrated with his team, who had been there through all the ups and downs of his career.
Nadal became the third oldest male player to win a Grand Slam title in the Open Era and broke the record for the longest gap between his first and second majors following his maiden Aussie Open crown in 2009.
This is one of the most emotional matches in my tennis career… you don’t know how much I fought to be here
The champ said: “Good morning everyone! This is one of the most emotional matches in my tennis career.
“It is amazing. Being honest, one-and-a-half months ago I didn’t know if I would be on the Tour again playing tennis. You don’t know how much I fought to be here. Now I have plenty of energy to keep going.
“I cannot explain the feelings I have right now. I will come back next year.
“Daniil is an amazing champion, I have been in your position, but I have no doubts that you will have this trophy a couple of times in your career.”
Runner-up Medvedev said: “It is tough to talk a tennis match after losing after five-and-a-half hours.
“But I want to congratulate Rafa because of what he did. I was amazed by Rafa. I tried to play tennis, but I asked him: ‘Are you tired?’
“It was insane. The level was very high, and he raised his level after two sets.
“It was your 21st Slam but I thought he would get tired a little bit.”
Nadal did his trademark celebration by biting the Norman Brooks Challenge CupCredit: AFP
Nadal could not believe it when he sealed the victoryCredit: AP
He somehow mustered the energy to boot a tennis ball into the crowdCredit: Reuters
The Spaniard was mobbed by his team in the player boxCredit: Getty
Medvedev had to settle for the runner-up plate for the second year runningCredit: AFP