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In Praise of the Unshakeable Rafael Nadal

The Spaniard vanquished injuries, his hungriest young rival and his competitive ghosts en route to his second Australian Open title.

As he stepped up to the line at 5–4 in the fifth set with tennis history on his racket, Rafael Nadal surely knew the ghosts of 2017 were present. That year in Melbourne, Nadal had a similar advantage over Roger Federer in the final. He was up a break in the fifth set, and he faltered. And in ‘22, he did so again. Daniil Medvedev broke his serve and looked destined to take the match to a final-set tiebreak.

But, of course, that’s not what happened. Just 15 minutes later, at 6–5, Nadal would have the match on his racket again—four more points and he would overtake Novak Djokovic and Federer for the men’s all-time major singles record by winning his second Australian Open—and this time he had no trouble.

Now, Nadal has bolted past his rivals in the most improbable fashion. He’s now won the career slam twice (something Djokovic accomplished last year and Federer hasn’t done) and stands poised to win another French Open in June. (At present, it looks as if Djokovic’s chances of defending his title in Paris are slim if he remains unvaccinated.) Nadal will turn 36 the week of the final.

With a clutch performance in one of the biggest matches of his life, he’s reignited the GOAT debate and also authored the most fitting, ironic ending to this tournament. This Australian Open began with disgrace and an embrace.

It’s scarcely needed to be mentioned that Nadal’s 21st major title—the way he achieved it and the sporting principles he embodied throughout—contrasted with the first two weeks of the year when everything about this tournament seemed as if it were being bungled. Attempts to squire Djokovic into Australia made Tennis Australia the subject of international mockery.

Nadal arrived in Melbourne more than a month ago. He’d never spent such a long time before at a single event site. And as the tournament crept closer, he didn’t know if he would even be able to compete. Nadal has a list of career injuries so long it could be serialized. But the career-threatening foot injury he suffered in 2021 was different from the others. Anyone who saw his aborted comeback in Washington last July wondered if they had seen Nadal for the last time. After losing there to Lloyd Harris, he didn’t play again in ‘21.

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Tentatively, Nadal entered Australia and quickly worked his way into form. He won a tune-up event in Melbourne in the first week of the season; given, he didn’t have to be the player in the top 50. The experience went a long way, not just swelling his confidence, but allowing him to acclimatize to the Melbourne courts and competitive tennis.

In the first six matches at the Open, it was vintage Nadal with a touch of aging. He won the first two sets of every match, but three times he dropped the third. He was pushed, but every time he showed that he had the goods. However, in the final, with Medvedev on the other side of the net, it seemed as if the entire competitive situation was different.

For the first two sets, Medvedev looked not only like a player 10 years younger than Nadal but like the guy who had won the previous major. The Russian had trained for this role, of playing spoiler, at the 2021 U.S. Open, where he thwarted Djokovic’s bid for 21 majors; he was also in the final in Melbourne in ‘21. For all his gangly movement and flappy ball-striking, he is a devastatingly effective player. He’s the clear torchbearer once the Big Three finally exit. He looked to be on his way to becoming the first male ever to win his first major and back it up by winning the second.

But then Nadal remembered he was Nadal. He clawed back in the third and fourth sets. He went up a break in the fifth to the delight of the crowd. Nadal stepped to the line where those ghosts of Rod Laver Arena were circulating on the dial. He had, unbelievably, only won the Australian Open once previously. This was his sixth final. In 2012, he lost in the longest final in major history, downed by Djokovic in a match that could have easily gone the other way. In ‘14, he was the heavy favorite against Stan Wawrinka, but his back seized up and he lost in four. Most memorably, in ‘17, another history pivot match, he was up a fifth-set break on Federer but could not close.

Back in 2022, after winning the first two points at 5–4, Nadal lost the next four points, one with a shaky and uncharacteristic double fault. But he was able to break Medvedev back and grab a second chance at history. He took advantage, serving out the match and winning with the most unlikely scoreline of his career: 2–6, 6–7, 6–4, 6–4, 7–5. Apart from the history, this will stand as one of Nadal's great triumphs. Little more than two weeks ago, it seemed that Djokovic might be granted his exemption and would be able to win a 10th Australian Open and 21st major. Here we are two weeks later. Djokovic is, by all accounts, still unvaccinated, his immediate future in doubt. Nadal has hurtled atop the mountain and will return to his favorite major next. The plots in tennis move as quickly as the stars.

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