MELBOURNE, Australia — Rafael Nadal broke his tie with Novak Djokovic and Roger Federer on Sunday night by winning his 21st Grand Slam men’s singles title.
Nadal edged ahead of his longtime rivals by defeating a member of the next generation, Daniil Medvedev, in the Australian Open final, 2-6, 6-7 (5), 6-4, 6-4, 7-5.
It was perhaps Nadal’s most surprising major victory. He is 35 and did not win a Grand Slam title in 2021 — losing to Djokovic in the semifinals of the French Open, the tournament where Nadal has reigned supreme, and then playing only one more tournament the rest of the season because of a chronic foot problem.
There were discussions with his family, friends and support team about retirement. But Nadal remains one of the great competitors in any sport, and after recovering from the coronavirus in late December, he flew to Australia to try again.
Nearly one month later, he has yet to lose a match in Melbourne, winning a warm-up tournament in Rod Laver Arena and then winning the main event by working his way through seven rounds in all sorts of ways and weather.
He suffered in the heat against Denis Shapovalov in the quarterfinals, losing a two-set lead and seeking medical treatment off court before winning in five sets. But Sunday’s final was played under the lights in the evening.
Nadal has now won all four of the major tournaments at least twice. He won his first Australian Open title in 2009, defeating Federer in five sets and then consoling him as he broke down in the awards ceremony. But Nadal has often been the one in need of comforting in Melbourne since then.
He lost four straight finals in radically different manners. In 2012, Djokovic beat him in a nearly six hour test of skill and will that left both men struggling to stand as they waited for their trophies. In 2017, Federer, playing freely as he returned from injury, snuffed out Nadal’s own comeback story by rallying from 1-3 deficit in the fifth set.
Then in 2019, Djokovic dealt Nadal the most lopsided defeat of his career in a major final, dominating him, 6-3, 6-2, 6-3. Watching that rout and knowing Nadal’s history in Melbourne, it seemed difficult to imagine him winning another Australian Open.
But Nadal surprised the field this year, and also surprised himself.