At 3-2 in the third set of the 2022 Australian Open final that started on 30 January, the man who was already trailing by two sets, faced three break points on his serve. The man who was leading looked in control. But in the early hours of January 31 in Melbourne, it was the man, staring at defeat not so long ago, who emerged victorious.

Rafael Nadal, in more ways than one, took the scenic route to Grand Slam title No 21 as he defeated Daniil Medvedev 2-6, 6-7 (5/7), 6-4, 6-4, *7-5 after 324 minutes of action.

His greatest comeback, yet? “If we put everything together... the scenario, the momentum, what it means... yeah, without a doubt probably have been the biggest comeback of my tennis career,” Nadal told journalists around 3 am local time.

Indeed so. For all the incredible moments in his career glittered with trophies and riddled with injuries, Nadal is no stranger to a scrap. But even by those lofty standards, this was something else. Not since Wimbledon 2007 (yes, 2007) had he won a best-of-five match from two sets down. And not since 2009 had he won the Australian Open, coming agonisingly, excruciatingly, mind-numbingly close on three occasions since. Time, indeed, works in mysterious ways for the greats.

So, at 2-6, 6-7, 2-3 and 0-40, what would Rafa do?

When Medvedev nailed an extravagant backhand drive after defending with everything he had in the moments before to position himself close to a second Major, Nadal fought. We can say it in one simple sentence, but it was perhaps the hardest thing to do.

The first break point, saved by a drop shot winner. The second break point, saved because of an over-eager, overhit backhand from Medvedev. The third break point, saved by a stunning crosscourt backhand volley as he approached the net off a Mevedev drop shot that didn’t go to plan. And just like that, deuce. A roar from him. A roar from the crowd. He stayed alive in that game, and what a difference it made.

Medvedev said after his win from two sets down against Felix Auger-Aliassime earlier in the tournament that he told himself to think about ‘what Novak would do’. On Sunday night, he said with a disarming smile when asked about what he learned from this experience against Nadal:

“ time I’m probably going to say when two sets to love down, ‘just do it like Rafa did against you’. But yeah, I mean the way he played today I don’t even want to say ‘fight’... we all know Rafa fights, you know it’s not going to be surprising if I say this suddenly ‘Wow Rafa fought today in the final of Slam!’ But the way he managed to play through out all these sets even in the tough moments... 

“And for him it’s for making history, so even if for sure he tries not to think about this it must have been somewhere in his head... and huge respect, like yeah, huge respect for beating me because I tried my best. Like, I really tried.”

And, as much as we can analyse how the match went, that really is all about it for Nadal. He, as he says with his hand to heart, doesn’t believe he deserves to win these matches but he will bloody well try everything he can to just out-do his opponent in the biggest moments. You can beat Nadal on many metrics in a tennis match, but not on heart. Not on trying.

“I was not ready physically for these kind of battles honestly, no? I didn’t practice enough to be ready for it but uh, tonight has been very special... I give it everything that I have inside, believe me,” he said later.

Of course, we do. Who wouldn’t believe that?

As one of the popular commentators’ catchphrase goes, Nadal empties his tank every single time. Beyond tactics and match-ups and baseline battles and drop-dead gorgeous drop shots and mind-boggling forehands down the line at big moments, Nadal powers through on will. It’s almost mythical.

So, then, what would Rafa do? Believe by telling himself to believe that it is not over.

“In that moment of course the situation have been critical,” Nadal said about that specific point in the match when he faced multiple break points. “But, sport is unpredictable you know. And if you fight till the end...”

Of course, the logical conclusion to the match at that point in time was that Nadal would go on to lose it in straight sets. You don’t have to be a genius tennis analyst to understand that... two sets and three break points down against the highest ranked player around at that moment who thrives on hard courts... who just played one of the points of the match to have three break points to go 4-2 up in the third set... it was a no-brainer.

But, as important as the brain is, Nadal’s heart matters more.

“I was repeating to myself during the whole match. I lost a lot of times here having chances, sometimes I was a little bit unlucky so... I just wanted to keep believing till the end no, I just wanted to to give me a chance and that’s what I did. Just fight... just keep belief on trying to find a solution... of course, I was lucky to save that moment,” Nadal said.

If anything, Nadal knows more about being in Medevedev’s position in Melbourne. Favoured to win the match. Starting well. Stars aligning. Advantages in crucial moments (he was a break up in the fifth set in both the 2012 and 2017 epic finals). He was favourite in 2014 but his body had other ideas.

“I am sorry to finish this way, I tried very, very hard,” Nadal had said after the defeat in 2014 against Stan Wawrinka in four sets despite a bad back injury. He fought through tears, while saying those words at this very arena. Even then, he tried.

“2012, 2017... 2014 with the injury too, I have been in that position a couple of times in my career here in Australia, no? And tonight, yeah, unforgettable. I feel very lucky but at the same time I think I fought a lot and I worked a lot to try... to try to come back to the tour... to give myself a chance to keep playing tennis,” Nadal said in the early hours of Monday.

And when he was broken while serving for the championship, you just wondered again. Surely, not again? He couldn’t possibly be facing this moment in his career now, with history in sight? Well, you were not alone. Nadal did too, with the rare appearance of a swear word on air.

“I can lose the match, he can beat me, but I can’t give up,” he told Eurosport.

His final words to the crowd in Melbourne too were very – for the lack of a better word – Rafa.

“I am going to keep trying my best to keep coming, next year. Thank you very much. See you soon...”

Having battled plenty of doubts in recent times, to borrow a word from one of many wonderful Nadalisms, he fighted a lot to get here.

And, having gotten here, to this new peak after an uphill climb, what would Rafa do?

Just keep trying his best, every day he is a part of this sport.

Corrections and clarifications: The final set score was 7-5. It’s been corrected from 6-4.