Rafael Nadal edged Daniil Medvedev in a classic Australian Open final on Sunday, roaring back from two sets down to claim a record 21st Grand Slam title only months after fearing his glorious career might be over due to injury.
With Novak Djokovic forced out by deportation and Roger Federer recovering from knee surgery, the Spanish great is now one major title clear of his ‘Big Three’ rivals after surviving the 2-6 6-7(5) 6-4 6-4 7-5 thriller at Rod Laver Arena.
Riding a wave of raucous support from the crowd, a vintage Nadal pulled off one of his finest performances to deny Medvedev again, less than three years after leaving the Russian heartbroken in five sets at the 2019 U.S. Open final.
In a match steeped in drama, Nadal was two points from the title but was broken as he served for the match at 5-4.
He held firm to break Medvedev again and served out the match to love, rushing in to deliver a backhand volley as a stunning coup de grace.
Dropping his racket, Nadal shook his head and grinned, then kicked a tennis ball away and pumped his fists in delight.
It was a triumph that defied time and logic, the 35-year-old completing his first five-set win from a two-set deficit in 15 years -- since overhauling Mikhail Youzhny in the fourth round of Wimbledon in 2007.
Having suffered four final defeats in 2012, 2014, 2017 and 2019, Nadal can now savor a second Melbourne Park crown, 13 years after beating Federer in the 2009 decider.
The long hair and pirate shorts of that decade have fallen by the way-side, but the class and fighting spirit endure in the face of Nadal's titanic battles to recover from injuries.
Having missed Wimbledon due to fatigue and the U.S. Open because of a chronic condition in his left foot, Nadal was on the brink of quitting in late-2021 and felt blessed just to turn up at Melbourne Park this year.
His ability to play seven matches felt miraculous for the Spaniard, who joins Djokovic, Rod Laver and Roy Emerson as the only men to win each Grand Slam title twice.
Now more than ever, world number one Djokovic may rue his failed bid to defend his title in Melbourne without COVID-19 vaccination.
His deportation threw the tournament wide open, leaving a vacuum for Nadal to fill and strike a potentially decisive blow in the Grand Slam race.