Rafael Nadal came full circle at the Australian Open.
The 35-year-old returned from injury to beat Daniil Medvedev 2-6 6-7(5) 6-4 6-4 7-5 at Melbourne Park on Sunday night, five years after Roger Federer, aged 35, edged Nadal in five sets in 2017 following his own injury woes.
All the heartbreak Nadal endured in the past at the Australian Open – surrendering break leads in the fifth set of the 2012 and 2017 finals and hurting his back in 2014 – is sure to be pushed lower down in his memory bank.
Here are some reasons for Nadal’s rousing comeback in the five-hour and 24-minute match.
Prior to the drop shots, change of trajectory and net play Nadal utilised to gain a foothold in the contest, the desire had to be there.
And as much as the Spaniard is known as one of the greatest competitors in tennis – or even sport – he would have been forgiven for thinking his chance dissipated after not serving out the second at 5-3. With a set point, too.
Nadal knew if he was to come from two sets down, he likely would need to exceed the four-and-a-half-hour mark – perhaps uncertain if his body would allow it given his lack of recent matches and his age.
But there was no quitting from Nadal, and it all began with saving three break points at 2-3, 0-40 in the third. Seemingly inconsequential at the time with Medvedev in control, hanging on proved to be huge.
And he remained focused after getting broke from 5-4, 30-0 in the fifth.
Nadal started his legendary career as a counter-puncher who covered enormous ground and pinned back opponents with heavy spin. His early successes mostly came on clay.
As his career progressed, though, Nadal added elements to his game – as befits a player who has won 21 Grand Slam titles.
Nadal’s variety was on display, especially after the first set.
His forehand cross-court dropshot largely bamboozled Medvedev – the execution impressed but so did knowing when to employ them – and he opted for short backhand slices to lure Medvedev out of position.
Both players went forward with joy when they squared off in the 2019 US Open final – another five-setter won by Nadal – and maintained that trend in Melbourne.
The percentages weren’t as favourable on this occasion, yet in the final set Nadal won six of nine net points, picking his spots well.
The shot of the match was Nadal capping a lung-busting 40-stroke rally with a devastating cross-court backhand slice winner in the second set. Women’s champ Ash Barty, who possesses that nifty backhand slice herself, would have approved.
Nadal’s serve fluctuated drastically in the final.
His first serve percentage in five sets, in order, tallied 54, 53, 82, 51 and 70.
The third set spike didn’t lessen pace on his delivery, either. His average first serve speed in the set exceeded or tied that of the first and second.
And when he needed first serves leading 3-2 in the fifth set, the got them. Three break points were erased with those lefty serves out wide. Had Medvedev levelled, he could have then surged.
Nadal adding more oomph to his second serve at AO 22 was notable.
Medvedev’s points won behind his often huge first serve lessened the deeper the affair progressed. It went: 83 per cent, 81, 72, 60 and 66.
Several draining encounters this fortnight may have taken a toll on the Russian, especially his five-hour victory over Felix Auger-Aliassime in the quarterfinals. A walloped serve saved a match point.
Overall, the numbers from Nadal and Medvedev could only be applauded, especially due to the marathon nature.
Nadal compiled 69 winners and 68 winners to Medvedev’s 76 and 52, for example.
Medvedev faced a few crowd favourites at AO 22. He duelled with Canberran Nick Kyrgios in the second round, then Greece’s Stefanos Tsitsipas in the semifinals. Many of Melbourne’s large Greek community came out to support the World No.4.
And not surprisingly – since Nadal is an all-time great who was attempting to land a historic major – the fans were firmly behind him.
The boosts throughout handed Nadal timely lifts.
No wonder Nadal said afterwards to the crowd: “You are just amazing. Thank you so much for the love and support.
“Having the huge support I received during the three weeks is going to stay in my heart for the rest of my life, so many, many thanks."