Creaking body, unyielding spirit: How Nadal mounted the mother of all fightbacks
It was nudging 1.30 in the morning on Monday in Melbourne, not a soul had left Melbourne Park. They had thronged the venue in the thousands in anticipation of witnessing first-hand a slice of history and the man they had unabashedly cheered for hadn’t let them down, mounting the mother of all fightbacks to keep his tryst with destiny.
The gladiator who had seen adversity in the eye, dared it to overwhelm him and eventually battered it into submission was knackered. Why wouldn’t he be? After all, he was 35, has gone under the surgeon’s knife numerous times, and had spilled guts and sweat, if not tears and blood, on the court for five hours and 24 minutes, doing battle against someone 10 years younger and at the peak of his prowess.
As the customary pre-presentation speeches droned on, Rafael Nadal sought a chair to rest his weary legs before it was time to walk up and receive the Australian Open men’s singles winner’s trophy for the second time. About to sink gratefully into the chair, he paused momentarily, turned to his right and offered the seat to Daniil Medvedev, the spirited Russian who had played his part in a memorable title clash. Medvedev, the world No. 2, turned the offer down with an amused smile, wondering like the rest of the adoring audience just what this champion from Majorca was made of.
There is a reason why Rafael Nadal is universally loved. For all his accomplishments, and they are staggering – as inadequate as that superlative might be – Nadal is the quintessential nice guy, polite to a fault, courteous beyond need, humble when he could be pardoned for strutting around like a proud peacock. It’s impossible not to like him, friend or foe, teammate or opponent.
And we haven’t even come to his tennis.
Less than four months back, Nadal himself was uncertain if he would ever return to the court. A chronic left-foot injury, courtesy a degenerative bone disease, required surgery and a lengthy spell of uncompromising rehabilitation that only someone with enormous love for the sport could have endured. Had Nadal walked away, he would have done so with his head held high. He had nothing to prove, not with 20 Grand Slam notches in his belt. But that’s not how he’s wired now, is he?
Just when he was beginning to get used to a game he had to modify to compensate for the injury, he was infected with the coronavirus ten days before the end of 2021, throwing his participation in the Australian Open in jeopardy. Again, he could have chosen to recuperate and focus on the red clay, unquestionably his most-preferred surface, yet he responded to the crisis with typical determination. Not only did he make the trip Down Under, he also won his only competitive tournament before the Australian Open, bringing feel-good and confidence if nothing else to the year’s first Grand Slam.
Remarkably, when the Open started on January 17, Nadal was the only former singles champion, male or female, in the fray. That he was the only men’s ex-champ shouldn’t have come as a surprise; after all, he and Novak Djokovic have won 13 of the last 15 Slams. But despite that, he wasn’t the unquestioned favourite for the crown in anybody’s eyes, least of all his own. Yes, people wanted him to win, he was the sentimental favourite. But realistically, few expected him to be smacking balls in the final weekend, let alone on the final night of the tournament.
If there’s one thing Nadal has showcased repeatedly, year after year since he burst through as a teenaged wunderkind more than a decade-and-a-half back, it is his indefatigable spirit. Of course he is an extraordinary tennis player, huge forehand, powerful backhand, plenty of overspin and now an excellent serve to boot. Despite the rapidly advancing tentacles of Father Time, he is still quick across the turf, powerful legs carrying him back and forth and side to side with an alacrity that’s the envy of far younger men. He is the ultimate master of the angles, of working points, of drawing his opponents to the net with deft slices and impossible drops and then unleashing wicked passing shots that seem headed well beyond the baseline before bowing to the master’s snappy wrists and dropping in, the heavy topspin and gravity combining to leave many an opponent embarrassed, dumbfounded.
But as much as Nadal is an outstanding tennis exponent, he is also the ultimate competitor. Whether it is immense self-confidence or unshakable self-belief, Nadal doesn’t know what it is to throw in the towel. He will run himself ragged if that’s what he takes, but he will never give up. Nadal seldom loses. Like a bucking, rearing, proud stallion, he has to be tamed.
On Sunday night, for that’s when most of this epic final played out, Medvedev believed he was close to taming the fierce Nadal spunk. He was up two sets, up 3-2 and held three break points as the exit door stared Nadal in the eye at 0-40 down in the sixth game of the third. There was a sense of the inevitable among the audience at Rod Laver Arena, which was graced by the great Australian of the 1960s after whom it is named, and among the millions riveted in front of their television sets. The great Nadal fairytale was on its last legs, tottering and stuttering.
One man chose to see it differently, and he was the one who mattered. Where others would have been shattered at squandering gilt-edged opportunities in the second set, Nadal saw a light, faint and distant at first but increasingly looming larger and more powerful as he put heart, body and everything else he possessed on the line. Brick by painstaking brick, he reconstructed his title challenge. Medvedev wasn’t unaware of Nadal’s magical powers of bouncebackability, but nothing would have prepared him for a heartbreak of this magnitude.
For Nadal, this triumph meant more than Major No. 21, which has taken him past Djokovic and Roger Federer and into rarified territory as the winner of most men’s singles Grand Slams. It meant more than ending a 13-year wait between titles in Melbourne, more than becoming just the second man in the Open era to win all four Slams at least twice. This was vindication, to himself, that there is still a fight left in the old dog yet. Creaking body, unyielding spirit. This truly is the stuff of fantasy.