Thirteen years and many injuries on from that extraordinary triumph at Wimbleton, Rafael Nadal is still astonishing us.
At the time of his famous twilight win over Roger Federer, in 2008 at the All England Club, you wondered what he might ever do to surpass it.
There have been times since when he has come close, but there has been nothing to compare with how he managed to close out what had been a troubled 2022 Australian Open.
Rafael Nadal came from two sets down to win the Australian Open against Daniil Medvedev
His Grand Slam victory is reminiscent of 2008 Wimbleton success against Roger Federer
Stabbing a high backhand volley into open court, he completed a comeback for the ages to see off the challenge of a despairing Daniil Medvedev.
It was 1.11am in Melbourne and Nadal had suddenly elevated himself above Federer and Novak Djokovic in their galactic pursuit of the most Grand Slam titles.
The quality of tennis was not always of the same vintage seen at SW19 all those years ago. But Nadal is 35 now as opposed to 22 then and his strapping physique has become less co-operative.
So much so that two months ago he was contemplating his future, having had his foot in plaster following an abrupt end to his 2021 season.
Nadal beat Federer 6–4, 6–4, 6–7(5–7), 6–7(8–10), 9–7 at Wimbleton over 13 years ago
Like Federer in Melbourne five years ago — when Nadal was on the wrong end of a five-set defeat — he somehow found a way to summon up the energy required to negotiate the hardest of fortnights.
He said he could not remember much about it later as he was ‘destroyed’. Devastated, too, was his opponent, who could not believe he had not closed out a match he was to lose 2-6, 6-7, 6-4, 6-4, 7-5 in five hours and 24 minutes.
If it was a shattering reverse for Medvedev, then in the wider context it was the final punch on the nose that the month of January delivered to Djokovic.
The 34-year-old Serb now finds himself trailing by one in a race which had seen him surging to the front, with the expectation after last summer’s Wimbleton that he would pull clear.
With victory over Medvedev, Nadal has surpassed Federer and Djokovic in Grand Slam titles
One or two jabs of a needle and it would probably have been him making his customary victory speech on the Rod Laver Arena.
Deported by the country whose national tournament he has won nine times, he could only look on from afar and contemplate this remarkable turn of events. Federer, you suspect, will be more genuinely sanguine, having already recognised that at 40 it is no longer within his reach to alter the heavenly leaderboard.
In the spring comes Roland Garros and this triumph will have strengthened the Spaniard’s belief that he has at least one more of those within him. He had, after all, fashioned his first win from two sets down since 2007, against the player who rightly aspires to be the new king of the hard courts. He had prevailed in what was the second-longest final of all.
A damaged bone in his left foot kept Nadal out for much of last year, but he had been encouraged by the previous month, in which he frantically tried to make up for lost time.
Russia’s Daniil Medvedev (right) had led the match for two sets but failed to claim the title
The Spaniard could not contain his emotions after a remarkable triumph in Melbourne
This was only his 10th match since early August and he doubted he would have enough reserves to sustain himself in what became more of a war than a battle. It was not even that this was being played in his favoured outdoor conditions as the weather took it indoors. The intangible factor was the crowd, perhaps extra boisterous after gaining their freedom in Melbourne which, late last year, became the world’s most locked-down city.
They not only put wind beneath Nadal’s wings but drove Medvedev close to distraction. Several times he implored umpire John Blom to take a harder line. ‘You need to say if anyone shouts out on second serve. They are idiots, empty-brained,’ he moaned.
In the fourth set Blom warned offenders would be removed by security. It was that sort of evening, one already interrupted by a campaigner jumping on court to protest about Australia’s treatment of refugees.
Nadal, who joins Djokovic as one of four men to have won each Slam at least twice, could have been long gone before the pulsating finale.
Novak Djokovic could not take part in the tournament after his Australian visa was revoked
Outplayed in the first set but ever resourceful, he started using the dropshot and slice more in the second. At 5-3 in the tiebreak he looked set to level, only to lose the next four points. Most would have been ready to console themselves that they had already over-achieved at a tournament they were not ideally prepared for.
The significant turning point came when Nadal trailed 2-3 and 0-40 in the third. Medvedev flinched on his break points and the crowd, and his opponent, were reignited.
They slugged it out in the fourth, with mistakes plentiful and shanks creeping in as the Spaniard edged ahead, so much sweat pouring off him that ballkids were seconded into mopping-up operations.
Medvedev was looking to follow up his US Open Men’s Singles victory back in September
Medvedev fell behind in the decider, although at 2-4 it looked like he was getting a third or fourth wind, having had regular thigh rubs at changeovers, a dubious privilege given to tiring players.
At 5-4 Nadal served for it, but at 0-30 his nerve finally faltered and he was broken, having served a double fault. Then it was the Russian’s turn to blink, playing a loose service game that allowed his rival a second bite at glory. This time there was no mistake and the champion served it out to love.
It will go down as one of those oddities of the tennis scoring system that the loser actually won more points, 189 to 182. It was also the third time in the last six Grand Slam finals that members of the younger generation have not been able to win from two sets up, Stefanos Tsitsipas and Alex Zverev the other culprits.
Whenever you think there is going to be a generational shift in men’s tennis, the heavy hammer of greater experience comes slamming down.
Nadal is now one Grand Slam ahead of Federer, with the Swiss sitting on 20 total titles