Australian Open: 'I know it's a special number' – Nadal turns 21 and takes lead in men's G.O.A.T. battle

By Sports Desk January 30, 2022

Rafael Nadal remains adamant he is not playing the numbers game as he navigates the twilight years of his career, but a record 21st grand slam title still felt "very special" to the Spaniard.

As he put it himself, what was perhaps the most unexpected major of his career was also one of the most emotional.

"That means everything for me," said Nadal, after the 35-year-old wrestled with Daniil Medvedev for five hours and 24 minutes on Rod Laver Arena, roaring back from two sets adrift to earn a 2-6 6-7 (5-7) 6-4 6-4 7-5 epic victory.

Nadal worried his career was over just a matter of weeks ago, he said, as he struggled to recover from the foot injury that has affected a large part of his career.

He abandoned a stop-start 2021 season in August, and missed Wimbledon, the Olympics and the US Open, leaving many to wonder if Nadal would ever be a force at the top level again.

At the age of 35, he is suddenly the man to beat again, having moved ahead of Novak Djokovic and Roger Federer on the list of the most successful men's singles players in grand slam history.

They both have 20, and Nadal now has 21.

Federer, who at the age of 40 is battling to return from knee trouble, hailed Nadal as "a great champion" and "an inspiration", while Djokovic saluted an "amazing achievement".

If their social media posts came through gritted teeth, both would surely appreciate the resilience of their great Spanish rival, not just in this match but across his career. In turn, Nadal says he would have no qualms finishing behind either when their final career totals are totted up.

"I don't want to change my point of view, honestly," said Nadal, who began his post-final news conference at 02:42 on Monday morning in Melbourne.

"For me it's amazing to achieve another grand slam at this moment of my career. It just means a lot to me. Of course, I know it's a special number, 21. I know what it means. It's a big significance this title."

Nadal says what matters most is the enjoyment of the big moments, rather than whether he finishes first, second or third in the private rivalry he, Federer and Djokovic have been ducking out for years.

"Today is an unforgettable day," he said. "For the last six months, I really fought a lot to try to be back on court. There have been very, very tough moments and conversations, because you don't know if I'm going to have the chance to be back on the tour.

"I feel honoured. I feel lucky to achieve one more very special thing in my tennis career. I don't care much if I am the one or not the one or the best of history, not the best of the history.

"Honestly, today I don't care much. For me, it's about enjoying nights like today. That means everything for me."

This was Nadal's second Australian Open title, a full 13 years since he beat Federer in another five-set duel.

"It is the most unexpected, without a doubt," Nadal said. "And the most surprising I think for everyone. It has been a very emotional night. Even now I am destroyed, honestly, physically."

He said he was too tried to celebrate, his body having taken a thrashing. In December, Nadal tested positive for COVID-19, adding a further complication before heading to Melbourne.

A warm-up event title put Nadal in a positive mindset heading into the Australian Open, but how the foot would hold up remained to be seen.

He said the injury is "difficult to fix, impossible really", but for now it is manageable. At one point during his recovery he said there had been "zero success" in getting to grips with the problem, saying it was "heartbreaking" at times.

"I just want to enjoy this moment," he said, back on top of the world, "and, of course, try to keep going."

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