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Nadal lays heartaches to rest with 'unforgettable day'

  • Alex Sharp

Rafael Nadal has reached No.21, but he's far from done. 

Wiping the sweat and tears away, one of the finest athletes of his generation lifted the Norman Brookes Challenge Cup for a second time and took to the mic at the trophy presentation. 

"One month and a half ago I might have said this would be my last Australian Open, but now that's plenty of energy to keep going," he said. 

"I'll do my best to see you next year." 

It's the champion's mentality. Nadal has already thrown his narrative forward. 

Until stepping onto Rod Laver Arena on Sunday night, the 35-year-old had endured a succession of heartaches at the Australian Open. 

Since lifting the title in 2009, he'd seen a fifth-set break lead dissolve in the 2012 six-hour marathon final defeat by Novak Djokovic, and a break lead erased in a 2017 decider with Roger Federer. Add on top a back injury denying his chances in the 2014 final, and then winning just eight games in the 2019 final demolition by Djokovic. 

Back to 2022, and world No.2 Daniil Medvedev was accelerating towards the finish line, two sets and 3-2 up, with 40-0 too. Somehow, miraculously, Nadal personified grit and determination to chalk up a fifth-set break. 

Surely not again? Nadal was denied the winning moment whilst serving for the title at 5-4. 
But for all the doubts, pain and uncertainty circling his career in the past six months, Nadal banished those demons to collect his 21st Grand Slam. 

"I was repeating to myself during the whole match, 'I lost a lot of times here having chances'. I just wanted to keep believing till the end. Just fight, just keep belief on trying to find a solution," said Nadal, following his first victory from two sets down since Wimbledon 2007. 

"2012, 2017, 2014 with the injury, too, I have been in that position couple of times in my career here in Australia. Tonight, have been unforgettable. I feel very lucky. At the same time, I fought to come back to the tour and to give myself a chance to keep playing tennis."

Nadal flipped the script after another AO final looked to be slipping away

Nadal hailed his mammoth five-hour and 24-minute triumph as the "most unexpected" and "surprising" victory of his mind-boggling career, indicating it was his biggest comeback on and off the court. 

You might remember in September 2021, Nadal posted on social media a picture of himself on crutches after surgery on a chronic foot issue. The Spaniard only returned to the cauldron of elite tennis in January, and that built to a crescendo on Sunday night.  

"I was not ready physically for these kind of battles, honestly. I didn't practice enough to be ready for it," admitted Nadal. 

"I give it everything that I have inside, believe me. I even can't celebrate. But was the day to give everything. I enjoyed the fight. I enjoyed the emotions. At the end, (to) have this trophy with me means everything."  

It means everything as Nadal was considering hanging up his racquet whilst on the sidelines last season.  

"We were trying things. And for a long period of time without any success, with zero success. After all the things that I went through all my career, of course at my age, knowing that you have an injury that you can't recover from that, the doubts are there," he added. 

"Mentally sometimes is heartbreaking. All the spirit, all the working, discipline, every single day make a big difference for me." 

So Nadal has rewritten his Australian Open story, bounced back from physical and mental despair, and now launched ahead of his 'Big Three' rivals.  

Roger Federer and Djokovic remain on 20 majors, Nadal rising to 21 atop of the men's all-time leader board. It impresses Nadal, but it's not the fuel for his competitive fire.  

"It's amazing to achieve another Grand Slam at this moment of my career. Just means a lot to me. Of course, I know it's a special number, 21," noted Nadal, the first player to recover from two sets down in the Australian Open final since 1965. 

"From my point of view, today is an unforgettable day ... I feel honoured. I feel lucky to achieve one more very special thing in my tennis career. I don't care much if I am the one or not the one or the best of the history. For me, it's about enjoying nights like today. That means everything for me. Means even more to achieve the second Australian Open more than any other thing." 

It took 13 years and 14 majors elsewhere, but Nadal is back on top in Australia

On the dais, Nadal had announced his intentions to return next January as the defending champion. After nights like Sunday, the tennis and sporting world will be rejoicing.  

"After this month of practising hard, playing very long matches, the foot was able to hold all this stress, of course I feel more confident that I going to have the chance to keep going, keep fighting, keep enjoying this beautiful sport," he said. 

"That's what makes me happy professionally." 

If Rafa is happy to play on, we are all happy.