For a few crazy hours on Sunday, life made no sense. A 35-year-old, who just a few months ago was on crutches (and even considering giving up the sport), was taking on a seemingly unstoppable 25-year-old, who was aiming to follow up his first Grand Slam (US Open 2021) with another one.
For most Nadal fans, the first two sets had been a cruel blur. Medvedev had been everything they had expected him to be – rock solid from the back and tenacious as hell. The Nadal serve was having no impact, the high revs on the ball were being countered and it seemed like the only thing Nadal could do was hang on for dear life. Midway through the third set, it seemed that even the last hope was about to be extinguished in the face of a great wind: the scoreline read: 2-6, 6-7, 2-3 (0-40). Three breakpoints.
The three opportunities came and went. The match stayed alive. Rafa stayed alive. The dream stayed alive. But Medvedev was still looking strong; still looking good to close it out eventually. It only seemed like a matter of time. But as long as the clock was ticking, Nadal knew he had a chance. If there is one thing that the Spaniard’s career has taught him and us is that it isn’t over until it’s over; until the last shot has been struck.
It sounds like a cliche but it is a cliche that owes much to Nadal, whose never-yielding on-court personality is the stuff of legends for that very reason.
So Nadal struggled as few others can. He tried to find a winning pattern... something that would disturb the Russian’s rhythm. The slices from the first set gave way to drop shots and in that he finally found something that the tiring Medvedev didn’t like. The side-to-side movement suddenly had a back-to-front variable thrown in. It didn’t work each time but it was something different.
And then in the fourth set, Nadal got a second wind. The forehand was being hit a little bigger... a little heavier, winners started flowing from the backhand wing too. And while this happened, Medvedev seemed to lose half a step. The balls that he was reaching with a fair degree of ease in the first three sets were now taking something out of him. A new level was found.
It showed us once again why beating the ‘Big Three’ in a best-of-five is such a challenge. They twist and they turn, they ebb and they flow, they wait and then they burst through. Had this been a regular best-of-three, Medvedev would have won and no one would have even batted an eyelid.
But five-setters are different and they require a different kind of resolve; a different kind of mentality. It almost means that players like Nadal can bring anything and everything they have learned during their long careers onto the court. They’ll try the impossible if they think it is worth trying. They’ll try the ridiculous. They will betray desperation that youngsters haven’t even dreamt of.
As the match worked its way into the fifth set, it became less a technical battle and more a battle of wills. Medvedev wasn’t giving in but this was Nadal growing into the match; becoming a larger-than-life figure who from a mental point of view was an immovable rock.
Heart of the matter
As the match wore on, one couldn’t help but wonder: “What makes a player great?”
Is it skill? Is it technique? Is it longevity? Is it temperament? Is it perhaps a combination of all these qualities? But one can still argue that none of it would matter if you don’t have heart. And few players in the world have as much of it as Nadal.
In the first few sets, it seemed like Nadal was running on fumes. But he was still running. A few others might have thrown in the towel or gone for broke but the Spaniard just wanted to hang in there, knowing that if he could do that his chances would come. As long as he was alive, he could struggle; as long as he could struggle, he could mount another attack.
Nadal had lost his last four finals at the Australian Open. He had suffered through them. But as he said after beating Matteo Berrettini, “we need to suffer and we need to fight.”
So perhaps in typical fashion, there was suffering against Medvedev, there was a lot of fight too and after five hours, 24 minutes, there was only one man standing.
“I was repeating to myself during the whole match, ‘I lost a lot of times here having chances’. I just wanted to keep believing till the end. Just fight, just keep belief on trying to find a solution,” said Nadal, following his first victory from two sets down since Wimbledon 2007.
After the match, he revealed just how dark the last few months had been for him.
“One month and a half ago I might have said this would be my last Australian Open, but now that’s plenty of energy to keep going,” he said. “I’ll do my best to see you next year.”
And that is why this triumph is like seeing the light again... for his fans and for Rafa too. Fight on, believe, and something incredible might just happen just as it did on one crazy night at the Rod Laver Arena on January 30. It also tells you that myth is, in this case, made from fact.