"Both players have arrived at their physical limits. The question is who can go beyond them?"
The question was posed by six-time Grand Slam winner Boris Becker on Eurosport heading into the fifth and final set of a pulsating Australian Open men's final. The answer was Rafael Nadal.
After returning from a career-threatening foot injury, Nadal pushed well beyond his limits to return to Grand Slam winning form in Melbourne. His comeback from two sets down to beat Daniil Medvedev 2-6, 6-7, 6-4, 6-4, 7-5, was a testament to the former world number one’s remarkable recovery.
"It has been one of the most emotional matches of my tennis career," admitted Nadal after almost five-and-a-half hours of grueling tennis that saw him clinch a record-breaking 21st men's singles Grand Slam title.
Hard road to title 21
The foot injury Nadal suffers from is a rare congenital problem that causes deformation of the scaphoid bone. It's one the 35-year-old has been managing since childhood, but that flared up again during 2021.
Coming into his 29th Grand Slam final in Melbourne, the Spaniard admitted that he experienced "a lot of days of hard work without seeing a light" during his latest six-month lay-off. He was just as open with his assessment at the Rod Laver Arena in the early hours of Monday morning.
"For me, it’s just amazing," Nadal told the crowd. "Being honest, one and a half months ago I didn't know if I'd be able to be back on the tour and today I'm here in front of you with this trophy. You don't know how hard I fought to get here. Without a doubt this has been one of the most emotional [periods] of my tennis career."
The victory not only marked his second title in Melbourne, a remarkable 13 years after his first, but also saw him move ahead of Roger Federer and Novak Djokovic in the all-time men’s rankings.
Djokovic missed his chance to improve on his nine Australian Open wins when he was deported over vaccination issues on the eve of the tournament. Federer, meanwhile, was injured, but took to Instagram to congratulate Nadal.
"To my friend and great rival Rafael Nadal. Heartfelt congratulations on becoming the first man to win 21 Grand Slam singles titles. A few months ago, we were joking about both being on crutches. Amazing. Never underestimate a great champion. Your incredible work ethic, dedication and fighting spirit are an inspiration to me and countless others around the world."
In the overall rankings for Grand Slam wins, Nadal still trails Magaret Court (24), Serena Williams (23) and Steffi Graf (22), but still has time to add to his tally providing his body holds up to the rigors of the Tour.
"One and a half months ago I'd probably have said there's a chance this will be my last Australian Open, but now I have plenty of energy to keep going. I really can't explain the feelings that I have right now, but I'm going to keep trying my best to come again next year," he said after his Sunday win.