Declarations of surprise are to be taken with a grain of salt from the Big Three – Rafael Nadal, Roger Federer and Novak Djokovic – when each passing triumph sends another record tumbling.
After six months sidelined, Nadal’s astonishment was beyond doubt after springing his greatest Grand Slam final escape against Daniil Medvedev to win his second Australian Open crown on Sunday night.
Thirteen years since he denied Federer on Rod Laver Arena, the 35-year-old became just the fourth man in the open era to capture every major twice following a remarkable 2-6 6-7(5) 6-4 6-4 7-5 victory.
It was his first comeback from two sets down in a major final and first at any stage of a Grand Slam since the fourth round at Wimbledon in 2007.
“I know it’s a tough moment, Daniil. You’re an amazing champion. I’ve been in this position a couple of times trying to have the trophy with me,” Nadal said. "It has been one of the most emotional nights in my tennis career, and to share the court with you is just an honour.
“For me it’s just amazing. A month-and-a-half ago I didn’t know if I’d be back and today I’m back here with you holding this trophy.”
Nadal admitted serious conversations had been held within his team about whether he could ever compete at the highest level again following a chronic footy injury.
An unprecedented 21st major, his first since Roland-Garros in 2020, gave the Spaniard the outright lead over his great rivals Federer and Djokovic for the first time.
“What you did today I was amazed. During the match I tried to play tennis but after the match I asked him ‘Are you tired?’,” Medvedev said. “You raised your level after two sets for the 21st Grand Slam… you’re an amazing champion. Congrats. It was unbelievable.
“I’m going to try to be better next time.”
Three years ago, Medvedev played up to the role as the Flushing Meadows villain, but won over a new legion of fans when he surged back from a two-set deficit only to fall narrowly short to Nadal.
Medvedev was under no illusion he would have it easy winning over a crowd intent on seeing one of the greats stand triumphant for the first time since 2009 on the final Sunday at Melbourne Park.
He cared not for sentiment though and a 136km/h backhand winner down the line was a warning sign he was taking the early initiative.
Sweat-soaked in the heat of battle on a humid summer’s night, the Spaniard was desperate to stem the flow when he rushed the net only to push a forehand volley wide.
It handed the Russian a 5-2 lead and he landed the set in 42 minutes.
Where Nadal’s heavy, higher-kicking blows typically proved so effective at wearing down challengers, Medvedev represented the modern prototype, a 1.98m tormentor with seamless movement and exceptional baseline consistency.
He was a formidable prospect, particularly on hard courts, and the sixth seed was under the pump.
Despite landing little more than half his first deliveries and spending more than twice as long on serve, Nadal was hanging tough.
His first break point arrived via a punishing 40-shot rally, ended on a backhand drop-shot winner, and he brought the crowd to its feet two points later when he opened up a 3-1 lead.
A set point slid by in a 12-minute battle on serve and, having survived Felix Auger-Aliassime from match point down in in a four-hour-plus quarterfinal, Medvedev was emboldened.
Thirty minutes later, he held a two-set advantage.
It was a sizeable summit for Nadal from here.
Not since a round of 16 clash against Mikhail Youzhny at the All England Club 15 years ago had he recovered from two sets down in a major.
With the pair locked at 4-all in the fourth, a first sniff of a chance arose.
A bold attempt off a poor drop shot backfired badly on Medvedev when it caught the net cord.
It proved pivotal as Nadal capitalised and after three hours and 12 minutes, Rod Laver Arena erupted when the 35-year-old landed the third set.
Medvedev’s woes were only mounting.
As the match passed the four-hour mark, Nadal appeared physically fresher of the two and 14 minutes later, the contest was all square.
A forehand winner to break at two-all in the decider came as a telling blow to his opponent’s fading hopes.
Twice before Nadal had led a break in the deciding set of an Australian Open final only to lose with victory in sight – to Djokovic in 2012 and to Federer in 2017.
It was an ominous sign when he failed to serve out the match at the first time of asking.
But Medvedev was unable to carry the fleeting momentum any further.
After five hours and 28 minutes Nadal had completed one of his greatest triumphs against extraordinary odds.
That number, 21, had never seemed further but had a sounded pretty sweet as it rang around Rod Laver Arena.
“All the support I have received since I arrived here, you are just amazing,” Nadal said. “Without a doubt, probably one of the most emotional ones in my tennis career.
“Having the huge support I received in those three weeks will stay in my heart the rest of my life.”