Vere two weeks ago, when the Australian Open started without the number one player in men’s tennis, the defending champion, there were people who felt that the winner’s name had to be followed by an asterisk at the end. Number one not included, title worth less. It was a silly idea at first, but in the end it won’t work without a star – the biggest in the sky these days. Because Rafael Nadal not only won the second title in Melbourne with his victory in five crazy sets against Daniil Medvedev (2: 6, 6: 7, 6: 4, 6: 4, 7: 5), but also the 21st Grand Slam -Title of his career.
He now leads in comparison to Novak Djokovic and Roger Federer, who are both at 20. And that after a time when he wasn’t sure if he would ever have another chance to run after the little yellow ball on his worn, damaged feet. In the end he got cheeky and promised people he would do whatever it takes to play in Melbourne again next year. But that’s just the way it is with passion; if it’s real, it never ends.
From the start there was no question who the audience wanted to see win. When Nadal stomped through the archway into the arena on a perfect summer evening at 28 degrees, he was greeted by cheers, volume eight out of ten; at Medvedev it was enough for five at best, accompanied by various boos. But he’s used to being the bad boy. Sometimes he seems like the poor cousin in a Russian drama who hits the boss and then breaks the daughter’s heart. Things like that usually don’t end well with Gogol or Gorki, but Medvedev likes to write his own stories.
Will it be another crime thriller?
In this case, he started the game much better. Nadal was sweating even more than usual early on, making an unusual number of errors and having little success in his attempts to slow down the game with backhand slices. He coped better in the second set and quickly took a 4-1 lead, but he still didn’t look fresh in many situations. He let Medvedev approach 5:5 and didn’t take advantage of an early lead in the tie-break either. After a good two hours of play, he also lost the second set and things weren’t looking good for him.
But as it is well known that he is not one to be dissuaded by any scores from fighting for every point like the last of his life, this score offered a good opportunity to browse through result lists and see when he last played a game after a had won with a deficit of 0:2 sets. Damn long ago: Wimbledon 2007, round of 16 against another Russian, Mikhail Yushni. In the final of the US Open 2019 against Medvedev, he had won the first two sets and the decisive fifth. Were you on your way to a crime thriller like that again?
But yes. From the middle of the third set, Medvedev’s precision slipped, although he was still doing an incredible job in defence, and Nadal now looked much fresher than when he started. The Russian allowed himself a few small talks with the Australian chair umpire John Blom, whom he asked – this time very politely – to take more consistent action against those hecklers who disturbed him between the first and second serve.
The fourth set was characterized by a large number of unused break chances on both sides. Nadal only converted two out of ten, the other one out of five. And Medvedev continued to play against many, many opponents – the indescribable, irrepressible one on the other side and thousands in the stands. When Rafael Nadal won that set as well, four hours and twelve minutes had been played and the hand of the clock was getting ready to jump to midnight. Goodness. Another thing like the historic final in 2012 between Nadal and Novak Djokovic, with five hours and 53 the longest Grand Slam final in history?
Not quite. As they passed the five-hour mark, Nadal led with a break and it looked like he was heading down the sunlit home stretch after countless twists and turns in the glens and valleys of this game. Middle of the night. But of course this completely crazy game had a little twist on offer. Nadal broke again on the first attempt to finish with his own serve, but he immediately hit back, regaining the lead, and on the second try he was unstoppable.
It was twelve minutes past one when he won the 21st Grand Slam title of his career. Daniil Medvedev, who never gave up and played brilliantly against a wall of opponents, took small steps to the net to congratulate the winner. The arena was like a madhouse, people were only interested in the winner.
And Rod Laver, the big ol’ Australian, pulled his mobile phone out of his pocket and snapped a picture of that madman in the soaking purple shirt down in the square. Meanwhile, in the triumphator’s box, six grown men fell into each other’s arms, including his father and his coach, Carlos Moya. They had all seen how miserable he had been many days over the past year, and they knew best that this was the wonderful ending to a journey that had almost become impossible.
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