Rafael Nadal has always had a flair for the dramatic, with his fist pumps and "Vamos!" rallying cries and the way he always flops onto his back the moment another Grand Slam tennis title is secure. But he outdid himself on Sunday -- and into Monday -- in Melbourne, taking a five-set, 5½-hour victory over the favored Daniil Medvedev in the Australian Open final.
This was a stunner, even by the 35-year-old's standards. His 21st Slam win, the most ever in modern men's tennis, was the most unexpected of his career. Even with Novak Djokovic having his visa revoked, Nadal began the tournament with just a 1.7% chance of winning it, per Tennis Abstract's Elo rankings. He had completed only five matches since last year's French Open due to a nagging foot injury, one he feared might end his career.
Nadal dropped a set to Karen Khachanov in the third round in Melbourne and survived an epic first-set tiebreaker against veteran Adrian Mannarino in the fourth before seizing control. Nadal's body nearly betrayed him in a five-set quarterfinal win over Denis Shapovalov, and he needed four sets to get past Matteo Berrettini in the semifinal.
Nadal put in serious work even before finding himself down two sets to Medvedev, who is maybe the best hard-court player in the world at the moment. But from 2-3 and love-40 down in the third set, Nadal fought his way back the only way he knew how: by grinding. He won 28 of 43 points with nine-plus shots in the last three sets, and when Medvedev got his legs back underneath him in the fifth set and mounted a charge, Nadal conjured up enough magic to finish the job. Nadal saved an epic service game at 3-2, and when he got broken at 5-4 after leading 30-0, he immediately broke back. When Medvedev couldn't return his net approach on match point, Nadal didn't even collapse; he just laughed and stared in disbelief at those in his player box.
With Djokovic's status uncertain for the coming Slams and fellow 20-time winner Roger Federer still battling back from his most recent injury, it's possible that Nadal won't stop at 21 titles. But he'll forever be the first one to have reached that vaunted number. Let's look back at all 21 wins, ranking them by both match quality and overall significance.
21-20. 2017 French Open and 2017 US Open
Result: def. Stan Wawrinka (6-2, 6-3, 6-1); def. Kevin Anderson (6-3, 6-3, 6-4)
After a 2016 wrist injury, Nadal charged back, reaching three Slam finals in 2017 and winning two. First, he rolled through his most dominant fortnight at Roland Garros, dropping only 35 total games in seven matches (!!) and offering Wawrinka, the 2015 French Open champion, nary a single ounce of hope.
After a fourth-round exit at Wimbledon, he found himself the top seed in the US Open. After losing the first set to Juan Martin del Potro in the semis, he again hit fifth gear, dropping just 15 games in his next six sets and claiming his third US Open title.
19-18. 2018 French Open and 2019 French Open
Result: def. Dominic Thiem, twice (6-4, 6-3, 6-2 in 2018; 6-3, 5-7, 6-1, 6-1 in 2019)
In an alternate universe, in which Nadal had chosen golf over tennis, Thiem might have at least a couple of French Open titles. The Austrian reached the 2018 final by surviving early tests from Stefanos Tsitsipas and Kei Nishikori and taking advantage of Djokovic's upset loss to Marco Cecchinato in the quarterfinal. In 2019, Thiem outlasted Djokovic in a spectacular five-set semifinal. And in both instances, Thiem had little to no hope against Nadal in the final. Nadal controlled most of their 2018 battle, and while Thiem gave him hell for the first two sets in 2019, Thiem collapsed soon after.
17. 2013 French Open
Result: def. David Ferrer (6-3, 6-2, 6-3)
Simply reaching the final was the hard part. Nadal had missed the two previous Slams with a knee injury, and he had to survive five long sets against the top-seeded Djokovic in the semifinal, winning 9-7 in the fifth. But against his 31-year-old fellow countryman, Nadal cruised. Ferrer broke his serve three times but held serve on only five of 13 tries.
16. 2010 Wimbledon
Result: def. Tomas Berdych (6-3, 7-5, 6-4)
From 2006 to 2011, the best clay-courter ever mastered grass, reaching five consecutive Wimbledon finals and winning two. In 2009, Nadal had to survive five-setters in both the second and third rounds but swept the semis and final against Andy Murray and Berdych, who had conquered both Federer and Djokovic to reach the final but barely lasted two hours once there.
15. 2008 French Open
Result: def. Roger Federer (6-1, 6-3, 6-0)
Handing Federer his worst ever Slam defeat is certainly an accomplishment, even if it isn't a particularly entertaining one. Nadal moved to 28-0 all time at Roland Garros and 4-0 against Federer there, with the most one-sided final victory since 1977. Federer landed plenty of blows in this rivalry, but none came in this match.
14. 2020 French Open
Result: def. Novak Djokovic (6-0, 6-2, 7-5)
Nadal won his only fall French Open title with ease. The tournament had been postponed until late September by COVID-19, but it did nothing to his timing. For the fourth time, he cruised through two weeks without dropping a set, and Djokovic couldn't make even the slightest headway until the third set of the final.
13. 2010 French Open
Result: def. Robin Soderling (6-4, 6-2, 6-4)
In 2009, Nadal lost at Roland Garros for the first time when the 24-year-old Soderling blew him off the court with 61 winners in a four-set victory. Soderling managed only 22 a year later in the final. Nadal attacked Soderling's backhand and played genuinely inspired defense, even by his standards, to get his revenge.
12. 2013 US Open
Result: def. Djokovic (6-2, 3-6, 6-4, 6-1)
Nadal hadn't won a non-clay Slam in three years when he came to New York in 2013. But he dropped only one set on the way to the final, and after getting manhandled by Djokovic in the 2011 final, he got revenge with defense. Djokovic committed 64 unforced errors to Nadal's 29, and Nadal won eight of the last nine games.
11-10. 2007 French Open and 2006 French Open
Result: def. Federer, twice (6-3, 4-6, 6-3, 6-4 in 2006; 1-6, 6-1, 6-4, 7-6 in 2007)
Gustavo Kuerten established himself as an all-time clay great with three French Open titles in 11 tries. That made it pretty staggering when Nadal moved to 3-for-4 with these two parallel runs. The No. 2 seed behind Federer both times, Nadal swept up-and-comers in the first round (Soderling in 2006, del Potro in 2007), conquered a game Lleyton Hewitt in the fourth round both times, swept Djokovic in the quarters in 2006 and the semis in 2007, then split two sets with Federer in each final before taking over.
9. 2011 French Open
Result: def. Federer (7-5, 7-6, 5-7, 6-1)
Federer has beaten Nadal twice on clay, but this was easily the closest he came to doing the deed in Paris. Federer led 5-3 in the first set and came back from a break down twice in the second and once in the third but still managed to take only one of those three sets and finally cratered in the fourth. It was Federer's last French final, while Nadal has won seven more titles there since.
8. 2010 US Open
Result: def. Djokovic (6-4, 5-7, 6-4, 6-2)
Nadal capped his best year -- his only with three Slam titles -- by vanquishing the guy who would take over the sport in 2011. While Djokovic had to survive two five-setters (including a famous semifinal win over Federer), Nadal reached the final without dropping a set. His fresh legs couldn't have hurt when he took control after the first two sets.
7. 2014 French Open
Result: def. Djokovic (3-6, 7-5, 6-2, 6-4)
Nadal had lost four in a row to Djokovic, including a three-setter on the clay in Rome, and Djokovic seemed closer than ever to his first French Open title. Nope! Djokovic won the first set and overcame an early break to get to 5-5 in the second set, but Nadal won 14 of the last 20 games. It was Nadal's fifth straight title in Paris -- almost as stunning an accomplishment as winning 21 Slams overall -- and ninth in 10 years.
6. 2012 French Open
Result: def. Djokovic (6-4, 6-3, 2-6, 7-5)
Djokovic was attempting to become the first man in 43 years to win four straight Slams, but Nadal seized control early. As the weather grew sloppy, Djokovic took over, winning the third set with ease and snaring an early break in the fourth. But the weather grew too inclement. Rain postponed the match until Monday, and Nadal recovered, winning five of the last seven games.
5. 2005 French Open
Result: def. Mariano Puerta (6-7, 6-3, 6-1, 7-5)
Nadal enjoyed a massive rise in 2004 and more than backed up the burgeoning hype in Paris. He took down Federer in a four-set semifinal then met the unseeded, 26-year old Puerta (who would soon receive a doping ban). Puerta took the opening-set tiebreaker 8-6, but Nadal blazed through the next two sets, saved two set points in the fourth and took his first title with a service break.
4. 2019 US Open
Result: def. Daniil Medvedev (7-5, 6-3, 5-7, 4-6, 6-4)
Medvedev took advantage of upset losses by Djokovic and Federer to advance to his first Slam final at age 23, and after dropping two sets and a break to Nadal, the Russian found his footing. He took the third and fourth sets and created three break points up 1-0 in the fifth. But Nadal saved them, broke twice (giving one of the breaks back), saved one last break point at 5-4 and won the match after nearly five hours.
3. 2009 Australian Open
Result: def. Federer (7-5, 3-6, 7-6, 3-6, 6-2)
Nadal and Federer have played six five-setters in their long rivalry, each winning three. But this was Nadal's second such win in a three-Slam period, prompting Federer to say, "God, this is killing me," to the crowd afterward. Nadal won 104 points to Federer's 103 and created fewer break points, but Nadal won the key points over and over and took what was, until Sunday, his lone Aussie crown in the process.
2. 2022 Australian Open
Result: def. Medvedev (2-6, 6-7, 6-4, 6-4, 7-5)
Nadal overcame massive odds just to get physically ready for this tournament then spotted an incredible player, 10 years his junior, two sets in the final. This victory will go down as probably the most stunning of Nadal's career, and it earned serious consideration for the No. 1 spot because of it. We'll place it at No. 2, if only because ...
1. 2008 Wimbledon
Result: def. Federer (6-4, 6-4, 6-7, 6-7, 9-7)
The 2008 Wimbledon final likely remains the greatest match ever played. After losing to Federer in five sets in the 2007 final, Nadal beat the greatest grass-courter ever on his own surface. Nadal saved 12 of 13 break points in the match and overcame a 1-4 deficit in the second set but dropped tiebreakers by scores of 7-5 and 10-8.
Neither player could break serve in the fifth set, until Nadal did it at 7-7; Federer saved three break points in the game, two via aces, but he overcooked an approach shot, handing Nadal an 8-7 lead, and Nadal served it out from there. The greatness of this match overcomes the epic significance of the 2022 Australian Open final, if only by a small margin.