It was a history-making night at Melbourne Park for Spanish tennis player Rafael Nadal as he earned his record-breaking 21st Grand Slam in a 2–6, 6–7(5–7), 6–4, 6–4, 7–5 win over world No. 2 Daniil Medvedev at the 2022 Australian Open. The tournament, held from Monday, Jan. 17 to Sunday, Jan. 30., had seen its ups and downs before the players even stepped on court, but Nadal managed to break the Grand Slam record he shared with Roger Federer and Novak Djokovic to stand alone for the first time in his career as the male player with the most major titles in tennis history.
Even before the tournament began, a controversy centering on three-time defending men’s singles champion Djokovic brought the world’s attention to Australia. After publicly announcing that he had not received a COVID-19 vaccine and had been granted an exemption to enter the country, Djokovic was denied entry at the border. Though the Serbian succeeded in appealing the decision, the Australian Immigration Minister revoked his visa again citing risks related to health and good order. While Djokovic also attempted to appeal this decision, it was eventually upheld in court, forcing him to leave the country and exit the Australian Open.
Djokovic’s exit from the tournament left Medvedev as the top seed and heavy favorite to reach the final, especially as the 2021 Australian Open Men’s Singles final had been contested between Djokovic and Medvedev. With Swiss players Federer and Stan Wawrinka not participating in the tournament, Nadal was left as the only previous champion in the men’s singles field, having defeated Federer in an iconic five-set match in 2009.
However, given that Nadal was sidelined from the latter half of the 2021 Association of Tennis Professionals (ATP) tour by injury and had recently recovered from COVID-19, expectations were low for the Spanish player.
As the tournament got underway, Nadal made it through his first and second round matches against Marcos Giron and Yannick Hanfmann without much trouble, winning both in straight sets and providing reassurances that he was still able to play at a strong level even if he was still feeling the tinges of injury.
Russian Karen Khachanov proved more of a challenge in the third round, pushing Nadal to four sets before the Spaniard was able to make it into his fourth round match against Frenchman Adrian Mannarino. Mannarino had seen global attention during last year’s Wimbledon tournament when he leveled Federer in the first round at two sets apiece before having to retire due to an injury at the start of the fifth. However, Nadal faced far fewer problems than his long-time rival and friend Federer, making it past Mannarino in straight sets.
As the second week of the tournament progressed, Nadal was met by young Canadian Denis Shapovalov in his quarterfinal match and faced his biggest challenge yet. Though Nadal seemed en route to another straight sets win after taking the first two sets in routine fashion, Shapovalov fought back to win the third and fourth sets, pushing Nadal to a decisive fifth set. However, the Spaniard’s experience eventually played to his advantage as the match ended in a 6–3, 6–4, 4–6, 3–6, 6–3 victory for Nadal, allowing him through to the semifinals.
Nadal’s next challenger was Matteo Berrettini, who reached the 2021 Wimbledon final but fell to Djokovic in four sets. Though some expected Berrettini to make things difficult for Nadal, the Spaniard dispatched of him after four sets, losing the third to the Italian before closing out the match in the fourth and making it through to a sixth Australian Open final.
The path to the final for Medvedev had not been straightforward either, with the Russian needing five sets to take down Canadian Félix Auger-Aliassime in the quarterfinals and earned a four-set victory over rival Stefanos Tsitsipas. Meeting Nadal in the final would offer Medvedev a chance to avenge his straight sets loss to Djokovic in last year’s final, along with another opportunity to try and take down another member of the Big 3 following his victory over Djokovic at the 2021 US Open.
The final gave both players the chance to make history, with Nadal trying to break the record of 20 Grand Slams he shared with Federer and Djokovic, while Medvedev was attempting to become the first man in the Open Era to win his first two Slams back to back after earning his debut major title at last year’s U.S. Open. While Nadal had reached the final in Melbourne four times after his first Australian Open title in 2009, he had lost on all of those occasions and would be trying to break that losing record. Medvedev went into the final as the heavy favorite, given that he was on a 13-match win streak in Grand Slams following his U.S. Open victory while Nadal had only recently returned to competition after his injury-ridden 2021.
For the first two sets, it seemed like the audience at Rod Laver Arena would be treated to a replay of Medvedev’s straight sets victory over Djokovic at the US Open, with the Russian sealing the first set 6–2 after breaking twice. The Spaniard soon fought back in the second set, breaking to take a 4–1 lead, but struggled to hold his service games after that, allowing Medvedev to take the set to a tiebreak that the Russian eventually sealed 7–5.
As Nadal had not won a match after losing the first two sets since Wimbledon in 2007, it seemed an almost impossible task for him to overcome Medvedev’s two-set lead. It all seemed over for the Spaniard early on in the third set when he faced three break points at 2–3, with Medvedev on the verge of sealing a two game lead. However, Nadal somehow managed to hold his service game, turning the tide of the match from that point onward to break the Russian at 4–4 and take the third set 6–4.
Following the end of the third set, Nadal managed to carry this momentum into the fourth, breaking early and holding to take the set 6–4 and force a fifth, title-deciding set. The pace of the fifth set progressed quickly, with Nadal earning a break lead that led him to serve for the match at 5–4. However, as he tried to hold his service game, he seemed affected by his nerves, double faulting and committing unforced errors that allowed Medvedev to break and level the final set at 5–5.
Immediately after losing his serve, though, Nadal broke back to recreate his lead and served for the match again at 6–5, and didn’t face any issues holding the second time. The match finally came to an end at 5 hours and 24 minutes as Nadal held to love, sealing his second Australian Open title and a record 21st major title.
Along with being the first male player to attain 21 Grand Slams, this win made Nadal the first male player in the Open Era to win the Australian Open final after being down two sets to love. He also achieved the double career slam, now having won all Grand Slams at least two times. This incredible achievement came just half a year after Djokovic earned the double career slam at the 2021 French Open, a major that Nadal has historically dominated.
The thrilling men’s singles final closed out another enjoyable two weeks of tennis at the Australian Open on both sides of the singles tournament, with Ashleigh Barty not dropping a single set on her way to becoming the first Australian player to win a singles title at the tournament since 1978. With the French Open coming up from Sunday, May 22 to Sunday, June 5, Nadal will surely stand a good chance of further extending his sole ownership of the Grand Slam record and possibly winning a record 14th title at Roland Garros. The entire men’s tour, particularly Djokovic and Federer, will surely be keeping an eye on Nadal’s continued recovery from his time off last year as they await what further lengths the Spanish player may reach this year.
Jiyu Shin can be reached at email@example.com.