Six weeks before the start of the Australian Open, Rafael Nadal didn't know if he'd ever play tennis again. He's now one win away from a record 21st men's singles Grand Slam title.
The fates of Novak Djokovic, Roger Federer and Nadal have been intertwined for the better part of 20 years. They each sit on 20 Grand Slam titles -- three generation-defining players all fighting the tide of age and the fiery youngsters looking to knock them off their perch.
Even without Djokovic and Federer at the Australian Open, Nadal, 35, was an outsider for the title -- partly because of the form of Daniil Medvedev, but also because of the foot injury that has sidelined him since May and the disruption caused by his bout of COVID-19 in December.
His incredible four-set win over Matteo Berrettini in Friday's semifinal came just 48 hours after he said he felt "destroyed" after his quarterfinal win over Denis Shapovalov. Within the space of two days, he looked 11 years younger, playing the most incredible brand of his tennis to book a spot in his 29th Grand Slam final.
But he's not fighting in Melbourne to get one ahead of Federer or Djokovic (according to his party line in public). Instead, he's playing the game with love and a desire to learn what his battered body can still achieve just weeks after he had retirement at the back of his mind.
"I just keep going," Nadal said before the start of the tournament. "I am just enjoying playing tennis, as I said hundreds of times. But honestly, and from the bottom of my heart ... of course I want to keep winning, because I love what I am doing."
And all this two months after pondering retirement. Just to get to the Melbourne Open was a triumph. But then he started winning, and kept winning.
Injuries are nothing new to Nadal. Problems with his knees, feet and ankles have dotted his career. His first few years on the circuit were brutal: a stress fracture in his left ankle in 2004, a foot injury in late 2005 that sidelined him into 2006 and knee injuries in 2007, 2008 and 2009. In his 2011 autobiography "Rafa," he wrote how he had contemplated ditching the sport to play golf instead.
And then came the lengthy layoff after Wimbledon 2012, when he was out for nearly a year and didn't return until the 2013 French Open. He missed the 2014 US Open with a wrist injury, and sat out Wimbledon in 2016 because of a torn tendon in his left wrist. It was around this time he talked of having an "expiration date".
But despite all of this, he made it back to sweep the French Open from 2017 to 2020, along with US Open wins in 2017 and 2019.
The COVID-19-enforced break in mid-2020 allowed Nadal's knees to heel, and he reached the Australian Open quarterfinals in 2021. Despite a back injury, he got himself fit for the clay season, but crashed out of the French Open in the semifinals to Djokovic -- having suffered privately with a recurring foot issue that flared up.
Nadal announced on June 17, 2021, he was pulling out of Wimbledon and the Olympic Games. He said the decision was made after "listening to my body" which needed time to "recuperate."
"The goal is to prolong my career and continue to do what makes me happy, to compete at the highest level and keep fighting for those professional and personal goals at the maximum level of competition," he posted on Twitter.
He returned in time for the hard-court season, saying the "issues" with his left foot had seen him rest for 20 days. But after a third-round exit in Washington's Citi Open, he pulled out of the US Open and announced on Aug. 20 the injury would rule him out for the rest of the year.
It was around this time he revealed he'd had the issue since 2005 and that he was taking a self-enforced absence.
"Honestly, I have been suffering much more than I should with my foot for a year and I need to take some time ... to find a solution to this problem or at least improve it in order to continue to have options for the next few years," Nadal said.
Then came radio silence, until Sept. 11 when he posted a photo of himself on crutches on Instagram and said he'd been working quietly behind the scenes with his team.
A month later, there were further retirement-related alarm bells when he admitted: "I don't know when I will play again. There are always things that I can't control 100 percent, but inside my head I'm clear on what my objectives are and I trust that things will follow a positive course."
Over the next couple of months, he used the time to further his academy and foundation. He met ex-Formula One champion Nico Rosberg and was made an "adopted son" of Sant Llorenç (a small municipality on the east coast of Mallorca). Each Instagram update came with a barrage of questions from fans asking when they'd see him on court again.
And then on Dec. 16 came the first tennis-related post -- a shot of Nadal serving in Abu Dhabi, preparing for the exhibition World Tennis Championship, where he played Shapovalov and Andy Murray. He lost both matches but looked to be back on track.
Only for COVID-19 to stop him.
Nadal tested positive on Dec. 20 and was hit hard, later revealing that he spent four days in bed and was "physically destroyed" for the following three days.
Amid all the disruption, there were fears he would pull out of Melbourne to focus on the clay season. Then on New Year's Eve, he posted a photo of him standing on Rod Laver Arena, saying: "Don't tell anyone ... here I am!"
He opened 2022 by taking the Melbourne Summer Set 1 ATP 250 -- his first tour matches since Washington five months previous. But by the time the Australian Open ticked around, amid the Djokovic chaos, Nadal's presence in the draw was a subplot to the tournament.
Nadal has been in a nostalgic and reflective mood in Melbourne, eager to play down expectations. He's clearly toyed with his own tennis transience, saying there'd be a moment in his career where the comeback would eventually "not be possible," adding how he had been "suffering a lot" with the foot injury. He's said the time out had not healed the foot injury, but instead allowed him to manage the pain.
Nadal opened his 2022 Australian Open campaign with a straight sets win over Marcos Giron and revealed afterwards the foot injury had been "worse than ever" the past 18 months. After the win, he told Eurosport Spain: "A month and a half ago I didn't know if I would play tennis again at a professional level due to various factors, including the problems I've had with my foot and with COVID."
The Nadal we've seen in Melbourne is more aware of his own sporting mortality; we're seeing an experienced tennis philosopher breaking through. When asked after his second-round win over Yannick Hanfmann about the positives of being 35 years old, he said: "Well, the positive thing is I achieved much more than I ever dreamed. The rest of the things? Nothing positive because [I] arrive to the end. When you get older, the watch never stops, no? That's the circus of life. You need to accept that. But it's all good with me."
He said the 6-2, 6-3, 6-4 win over Hoffman allowed him to "practice again tomorrow." He added: "I don't feel any big pressure on my shoulders, honestly."
He got through his third-round test with Karen Khachanov in four sets and edged out a 28-minute first-set tiebreak versus Adrian Mannarino to win in straight sets to book a quarterfinal showdown with Shapovalov. He said the tournament was "going better than expected", but Nadal's body and mind would be tested to their limit in his eventual five-set win over Shapovalov.
While the 22-year-old Canadian was screaming at the sun and getting increasingly frustrated with decisions being made by the umpire, Nadal stayed focused. He took the first two sets, lost the next two -- playing in some discomfort with stomach problems -- but regrouped to win 6-3, 6-4, 4-6, 3-6, 6-3. Afterwards he said he needed the 48-hour break to regroup as he wasn't "21 anymore".
But then he played like 2010 Nadal against Berrettini in the semifinal, as the two-day rest saw him explode out of the blocks to take down the Italian. It was an astonishing performance, marked with an emotional celebration from Nadal. As Berrettini stuck his forehand into the net on match point, Nadal turned to his team and with three fist pumps and a shout of "Vamos!" he went from disbelief to elation. "I never thought about another chance at the Australian Open in 2022," he said on-court afterwards. "But I will give it my best."
In Nadal's mind, this Australian Open has already been a success -- he came close to stepping through the door of retirement, only to leave it ajar. "I went through some days without seeing a light there," Nadal said after beating Berrettini.
There are echoes of Federer's 2017 Australian Open run, where Federer, at 35, battled back after six months out with a knee injury -- then stormed through to win the whole thing. We're seeing Nadal living out an encore -- playing with more freedom, less stress and an appreciation of what he's achieved and how much fun he's eked out in whatever's left in his career.
He has a chance at No. 21 on Sunday, but any thoughts of its significance are compartmentalized within the whole achievement of his last two weeks at the Australian Open. After his key quarterfinal win, he was offered another chance to reflect on what it'd mean to go one Slam ahead of Djokovic and Federer. He's happy to leave that for others, proud of what he's achieved in getting to this point.
"I am super satisfied and feel like a very lucky person in general for all the things that happen to me in this life," Nadal said. "You can't be always frustrated if [your] neighbor has a bigger house than you or a better phone or a better thing, no? I'm not going to be frustrated if Novak or Roger finishes the career with more Grand Slams than me. Let's enjoy the situation that every one of us [had]. We did very special things in our sport. Let's enjoy that. The other thing doesn't matter."