As Rafael Nadal thwacked a bread-and-butter backhand shot into the net, he could feel the demons of the past rise. Twice before, on the very same court, the Rod Laver Arena, Nadal had been a break up in the fifth set and conceded that advantage. That happened in 2012, when Novak Djokovic beat the Spaniard 5–7, 6–4, 6–2, 6–7(7), 7–5 in the longest Grand Slam final (by duration, it lasted five hours and 53 minutes) and then again in 2017, when a 36-year-old Roger Federer defeated Nadal 6-4, 3-6, 6-1, 3-6, 6-3.
On Sunday, Nadal was serving for the match at 5-4 against Daniil Medvedev when he let the lead slip. All that momentum he had worked for, since winning the third set, after losing the first two came to a halt. “I said, ‘F*ck, one more time, break up in the fifth, I gonna lose the advantage,” Nadal said after the match. He got up again, got ready for the next point, the next game. “I can lose the match, or he can beat me, but I can’t give up.” It summed up his latest triumph, his entire career.
After that backhand miss, Nadal quickly hit the reset button. He broke Medvedev’s serve—the Russian had delivered 23 aces on the day—and then held his own at love to score a 2-6, 6-7(5), 6-4, 6-4, 7-5 win in the final of the Australian Open. After five hours and 24 minutes of pure heart Nadal was the last man standing. He was also the first man to win 21 Grand Slam titles. The Australian Open title saw him edge ahead of his biggest rivals Federer and Djokovic.
The Spaniard has overcome the odds his whole career. But there was still a level of incredulity, from the man himself, and his legion of fans worldwide, as he finally got past the finish line against Medvedev. Nadal had missed the second half of 2021 due to a foot injury and then contracted covid-19 in December. He had been two sets down, 0-40 at 2-3, in the third set against Medvedev, the world no 2 and the reigning US Open champion. The Russian, who stands at 6’6”, had brick-walled him all day, used his massive reach to swoop down on balls, rattling Nadal with his tactical clarity. But the Spaniard, 35 years of age, dripping with sweat, clinging on to belief, had found a way a win.
“If we put everything together, the scenario, the momentum, what it means…yeah, [it’s] probably the biggest comeback of my tennis career,” he said. “Was the day to give everything, no?” The Spaniard had run so hard, and for so long, that he needed a chair to sit in during the trophy presentation ceremony. “I asked him after the match, ‘Are you tired?” said Medvedev, 10 years his junior. “Because it was insane.” The Russian, who was left angry then deflated by an uproarious, pro-Nadal crowd, admitted that he had flagged physically in the final set. “It was unreal effort,” said Medvedev. “The way he managed to play throughout all these sets, even in the tough moments, for him it was for making history. For sure he tried not to think about it, but it must have been somewhere in his head.” For a smiling Nadal, his face far more creased than when he won his first major in 2005, at the age of 19, lifting the Australian Open trophy had once again provided a fitting end to the ‘Happy Slam’.
Homegrown champions: The Spaniard, however, was not the only one to make history at the Melbourne major this year. A day before Nadal’s coronation, Australia had crowned its first homegrown female champion in 44 years. World No 1 Ashleigh Barty defeated American 27th seed Danielle Collins 6-3, 7-6 (2) to become the first Australian woman to win the singles title in Melbourne since Christine O'Neill in 1978.
Then Nick Kyrgios and Thanasi Kokkinakis brought the roof down at the Rod Laver Arena. Kyrgios and Kokkinakis, dubbed Special K, beat Matthew Ebden and Pax Purcell 7-5, 6-4 in the first all-Australian men’s doubles final since 1980. As they went from wildcards to champions, Kyrgios and Kokkinakis rocked the doubles world. Their big serves, big returns and big personalities had people queueing up for a show.
Opponents slammed them for turning the game into a ‘circus’, but there weren’t too many who were not entertained with their vision of the doubles game. For the first time in many years, doubles didn’t feel like an afterthought. Even though their (Kyrgios in particular) behaviour, remained borderline, their tennis was good enough to upstage some of the most established teams on the doubles circuit. If the ‘Special K’ racquet-smashed, trash-talked their way to the title, Barty was a picture of calm.
Through the fortnight, the ice-cool Queenslander dominated her opponents with her court craft. She won the hard court major without dropping a set and became only the second active player—apart from Serena Williams—to win majors on all three surfaces (she won the French Open in 2019 and Wimbledon in 2021). Two-time Australian Open champion Victoria Azarenka tweeted: ‘There is just no better tennis player at the moment than @ashbarty. Most complete and focused! The way she is able to put pieces together and add a bit more to her game is absolutely admirable! What an example!’
Barty, who had tried her hand at cricket and played in the Women’s Big Bash League, before being drawn back to tennis, has been a completely different player the second-time round. More comfortable in her own skin, the Australian has started to spread her wings. Her all-court game, which hinges on a deceptive serve, is a hat-tip to the Australian greats of the 1970s and 80s.
“I’m still very much learning and trying to refine my craft and learn every single day and get better and better,” she said after the final. “That was one of the biggest challenges Jim set out for me when I was young—to be a complete player, and to be really consistent across all surfaces.” In an era of power tennis, Barty rules with the lightest of touches. While she is busy shaping the future of the women’s game, Nadal has helped redefine history of the sport.
Deepti Patwardhan is a freelance sportswriter based in Mumbai