In September, Rafael Nadal was on crutches. After pulling out of the U.S. Open and the remainder of his 2021 season, the Spaniard underwent surgery for the chronic issue that had plagued his left foot for years. He’d been sidelined with injuries before —in 2005, he famously won the Madrid Open final with a broken foot—but this was different. He was 35 now. In June, he’d lost to Novak Djokovic in the quarterfinals of the French Open—the tournament synonymous with his legacy, where he’d won 13 of his 20 Grand Slams—and then took several months off to recover. The team who first treated him in 2005 had discovered more than just a break. Nadal had Müller-Weiss syndrome, a rare and degenerative deformity of a small bone in the midfoot. He could keep playing, but he would always feel it. Surgery seemed an inevitability. He could no longer play through the pain as he had in his younger years. An image of him after the operation—standing on his right leg, the left bandaged and tucked behind him—all but confirmed that, regardless of talent and tenacity and the greatest of insoles, the nearly two decade-long era of Nadal was inching toward its close.
But on Sunday morning at the Australian Open men’s final, after five and a half hours and five sets, the 6th-seeded Nadal emerged victorious against Russia’s Daniil Medvedev, winning the tournament for only the second time in his career and becoming the first player in men’s tennis to reach 21 Grand Slam singles titles. Forty-year-old Roger Federer and the ever-polarizing Novak Djokovic remain tied at 20. Djokovic would have competed, but a week-long saga resulting from his choice to not vaccinate against Covid-19, Australia’s rejection of the medical exemption on his visa application, and two failed attempts to appeal Australia’s decision, kept the nine-time Australian Open winner out of the tournament.
Nadal’s victory in Rod Laver Arena was far from assured. When he first returned to the tour, in December, after quietly pondering retirement, he lost to another of the aged greats, the 34-year-old Scotsman Andy Murray, at the World Tennis Championship, an exhibition tournament in Abu Dhabi. Soon afterward, he was diagnosed with Covid. If a post-op comeback was in the making, the likelihood of it taking place four weeks later, at January’s Australian Open, was growing slimmer by the day.
Once in Melbourne, Nadal’s run was impressive but hardly the relentless, barnstorming dominance his fans have grown accustomed to after twenty years of watching him play. In the quarterfinals, the 22-year-old Canadian Denis Shapovalov took him to five sets, and in Sunday’s final, Medvedev got off to a much stronger start, going up two sets to Nadal’s none, and up three break points at 3-2 in the third. Nadal looked tired. The sight of him on court at a Grand Slam, clad in pinks and purples, brought with it a kind of jubilant familiarity. But this appearance was tinged with sadness. He was losing at a tournament he’d only won once, in 2009. And were he to lose in straight sets to the predominant force of the new tennis generation, post-Covid and barely recovered from surgery, his swan song might sing itself.
Nadal staved off the first of Medvedev’s three break points with a drop shot. He survived the next two through Medvedev’s unforced errors. And when he reached his advantage, he won the game because the 21st shot of the point, his buggy-whip forehand—a burst of perfection—forced Medvedev to hit it long. The crowd exploded. Sudden momentum, as is wont to do in tennis, blew a new world open. Three hours later, history was his.
Back when he still played in capri pants, Nadal emerged as the second of what would become the Big Three—a trio of near total dominance in men’s tennis beginning in 2003, when a ponytailed Roger Federer won his inaugural Grand Slam at Wimbledon. Nadal won his first Grand Slam at his first French Open in 2005, defeating then world No. 1 Federer in four sets in the semis, on his 19th birthday, before moving on to crush Argentina’s Mariano Puerta in the final.
Nadal won 12 more French Open singles titles over the next 15 years. The red clay at Roland Garros is perhaps the tennis world’s most reviled surface. It often makes players slip as they sprint across the court. It slows the bounce of the ball. It favors topspin, with depth. And it drives good players, like Medvedev, to outrage. For Nadal, though, Roland Garros has always been home. He has long been recognized as the greatest clay court player of all time. Yet until now his mastery of clay has overshadowed his holistic greatness; for years he has loomed as the runner-up to Federer in the pantheon of the game’s overall greats.
Even now, regardless of statistics and slam counts, there is debate. Some still regard Federer as the greatest-ever, for his sublime artistry. Others point to Djokovic’s superior record against Nadal in finals (15-13, respectively), and note that the Serbian will likely at least tie him at 21 slams in the near future. To an extent, there is a futility to this taxonomy of greatness. Each of these three legends has been pegged and pigeonholed, classified by the qualities that individualize him—Federer is grace, Nadal strength, Djokovic machine-like consistency—as though each has never not been all of those things. As though there can only be one, in the end. But as for which of the three definitively deserve the label at this moment in time, as age and injury bring this wild, 19-year ride to perhaps its final chapter, there is only one response. It’s Nadal.
What is greatness if not the sight of a 35-year-old outplaying and outlasting an uninjured opponent 10 years his junior, a mere four months after surgery and four weeks after respiratory illness? What is his legacy if not the painstaking, go-for-broke approach he has applied to every point, on every surface, of his 21 Grand Slam victories? What is radical if not the sustained, brute force of a game in direct contrast to the humble persona who wields it? Sunday’s victory was the culmination to twenty years of grunting and groaning his way through all manner of setbacks. Clay is the surface that made Nadal, but it’s fitting, in a way, that it was the hard courts of the Australian Open—his least successful surface—to finally anoint him as the game’s all-time great.