Rafael Nadal is the talk of the town and the toast of the tennis world as the Spaniard became the first man to reach 21 Grand Slam titles. Nadal pulled ahead of his rivals, Novak Djokovic and Roger Federer in what had been a gargantuan tussle between the tennis superstars. Heading into the first slam of the year, all the attention were on Serbian world number one, Novak Djokovic and his troubles with the Australian authorities. Djokovic was the odds on favorite to lift the title in a tournament where he has had his highest haul of slams, but with the deportation of the Serb, Rafael became the only member of the big three to participate in the tournament.
The favorite to win the slam was Russian World number two, Daniil Medvedev, who was also on a quest to unseat Djokovic as the new world number one. Rafael, having won a warm-up tournament before the start of the Australian open, was looking good for someone who, a month before the tournament, was down with COVID and wasn’t even sure if he would make the trip to compete in Australia. Rafael spent most of last year recovering from a problem with his foot; and with the section of the draw he was scheduled to play, there were many doubts as to if the Spaniard would be able to navigate his way through the draws.
Rafael started his quest for a 21st slam against American Marcos Giron, and quickly won that in straight sets. He went on to beat German Yannick Hanfmann, also in straights in his second round match. His first test came in the third round against Russian World number 27, Karen Khachanov. Rafa came through in four sets and passed his first major test looking really good except for a short period during the third set, but composed himself to finish off the spirited Russian in the fourth set. He beat Adrian Mannarino in the fourth round in straight sets. At this point, talk had started as to the possibilities of Rafael going all the way but at this point, it looked a tall order considering the amount of younger talent still in the competition. And with Medvedev moving smoothly through his section, it looked ominous he would be lifting his second major title. Rafael came up against Canadian world number 12, Denis Shapovalov in the quarter-final, and everything was smooth-sailing for Rafael until the third set where he started to suffer from the heat, and Shapovalov took advantage, attacking the Spaniard and taking the third set.
Rafael got treatment for a stomach upset and was visibly troubled by the conditions, and it wasn’t looking good for the Spaniard. Shapovalov took the fourth set, and the match went into a fifth set shootout for a chance to move to the semifinals. Rafael broke the Canadian’s serve early in the fifth set and even though he still looked visibly hurt, he fought his way through to take the fifth and deciding set to move to the semifinals. At this stage of the tournament, most of the Nadal fans started to believe he could pull off what seemed impossible at the start of the tournament.
He was billed to face Italian superstar, Matteo Berrettini, for a place in the final; and in true Rafael fashion, he came out blazing, running away with the first two sets. There was a brief fight-back by the Italian, taking the third set, but Rafael steadied the ship and took the fourth set to book his place in a showpiece final where he would have to go through the most in form player, and overwhelming favorite to win the tournament in Daniil Medvedev.
The stage was set, and Rafael was on the cusp of history, playing in Australia where he had won just one of his 20 slams. Rafael had been to five finals previously with just one title to show for it. Asides the chance to break the tie with his fierce rivals, he could also be one of a select few who could boast of winning all the majors at least twice. All he had to do was beat the odds on favorite who, just months’ back, had stopped Djokovic from achieving what Rafael was looking to do at the US Open.
The Russian beat Djokovic in straight sets to deny him his 21st slam. And again, he had the chance to do the same to Rafael. The final started as everyone expected with the Russian dominating proceedings, and Rafael looked out of sorts and nervous. Medvedev was two sets up and a set away from his second Grand Slam but Rafael had other ideas. At the start of the third set, it was obvious there was a change in Rafael’s play as he injected a bit of pace, power, and precision into his game. He started going for his shots playing like a man with nothing to lose. And boy did it pay off.
Rafael looked a different animal, and he took the third set and it was obvious this sequence of events had started to put some doubts in the mind of the Russian. Rafael’s resurgence continued into the fourth set, and Medvedev was trying his best to keep up but it started becoming obvious that the Russian was beginning to tire. Rafael took the fourth set and we were going to see a fifth set to decide the match. At this stage of the match, it looked like Rafael was going to run away with it but the Russian wasn’t going to allow it go away that easy and he put up a good fight, stopping Rafael from serving out the match in his first try, but Rafael would not be denied. The Spaniard was determined to make history and achieve what most people, and even he himself, thought was out of his reach. Rafael closed out the match 2/6 6/7 6/4 6/4 7/5 to take his second Australian open title and his 21st Grand Slam title overall.
There are those who would say the absence of world number one, Novak Djokovic, was a big factor with Rafael winning. But even with the Serb’s absence, Rafael wasn’t even in the conversation as a possible winner because of all the trials he’d faced prior to the tournament. And what a way to start off the tennis season! Rafael’s win in Australia has set up the season properly and also raised a few questions. Will Novak Djokovic get vaccinated? With most countries having vaccine mandates, it’s become almost impossible for unvaccinated to enter and compete at different tournaments.
Another burning question on the lips of fans is what shape would Roger Federer return? Would he still be able to cut it at the highest level at almost 40 years of age? And what does the season have to hold for Rafael? One thing is sure; we are definitely in for a blockbuster season.