One of the most remarkable traits of Rafael Nadal, Novak Djokovic and Roger Federer throughout their incredible careers has been the way they have maintained their hunger for titles and sheer enthusiasm for the sport. No matter the obstacles in their path or the advancing of time, winning seems to bring them just as much joy as it did when they first tasted victory at the highest level.
The sheer elation on Nadal's face on Sunday as he completed an incredible comeback to beat Daniil Medvedev in the final of the Australian Open told its own story. A month and a half after the recovery from foot surgery left him wondering if he would even make it to Melbourne, and a month after he had Covid, which also interrupted his preparations, Nadal is back as champion and for now, the most successful of the lot.
Winning his first grand slam at 19, as Nadal did at the French Open in 2005, was a “super-special moment” but when you’re 35 and up until six weeks ago, you did not even know whether you would be able to play in the tournament, let alone win it, the feeling is something else altogether.
“It has been more emotional than the first one, no doubt about that,” he said. “At later stages of your career, I think you are able to enjoy more these moments because you know the chances are less. When you are 19, when I achieved the first, of course is super special, but you know if you are playing well, you’re going to keep having chances to enjoy moments, no? Today you never know what can happen. Yeah, of course I am proud. The personal satisfaction is higher than years ago, no? I just stay more in the moment without thinking so far in front.”
It was always a nice thought that in this era of three giants of the men’s game, somehow they might all end their careers level on 20 grand slam titles apiece. Having moved ahead with 21, Nadal will go to the French Open, where he has won the title an astonishing 13 times, with renewed confidence. And yet Nadal’s victory may also inspire Djokovic, who beat him on the way to the title in Paris last year, to come back even stronger.
Unable to play at the Australian Open because of visa issues due to not being vaccinated against Covid, the world number one will have a point to prove.
But the way Nadal played throughout the Australian Open, particularly when he trailed by two sets and faced triple break point at 3-2 down in the third set against Medvedev, will surely convince him he has more grand slam titles in him.
At 35, and with his history of injuries, there’s no saying how many more years he will have but his desire remains undimmed, as he told the crowd.
“A month and a half ago, I didn’t know if I was going to be able to be here. But you have given me the energy to keep trying to come back next year.
“I want to keep going. Things can change quick but I feel lucky to have the chance to compete this way. It has been amazing for me and unforgettable. Of course I feel more confident that I’m going to keep going, keep fighting and playing this sport that makes me happy. I just feel confident that now I am going to have my chances to keep playing like this.”
Both Djokovic and Federer were quick to congratulate Nadal on social media. Their rivalry has pushed each other and though Nadal is top of the pile for now, he is too modest to say he is the best. “I will never say I deserve,” he said. “I don’t care much if I am the number one, or not the number one, the best of history or not the best of history. For me it’s about enjoying nights like today, that means everything for me. It means even more to me to achieve a second Australian Open than any other thing.”
Asked what has taken him to this point, Nadal said: “Love for the game, passion, positive attitude, and working spirit . . . that’s all. And the right people next to me helping every single day. I think that’s all.”
It’s a humility that has been present and obvious throughout his career, allowing him to accept the painful defeats and enjoy his many highs, from that first one in Paris to this latest one in Melbourne. On the evidence of the past fortnight, there is more to come.