Rafael Nadal sits proudly atop the men’s tennis tree after producing the most astonishing feat of his glittering career.
The 35-year-old fought back from two sets down to defeat Daniil Medvedev and win a record 21st grand slam title at the Australian Open.
Nadal’s 2-6 6-7 (5) 6-4 6-4 7-5 victory moves him clear of his great rivals Roger Federer and Novak Djokovic as the most successful male player in grand slam history.
Both men congratulated him on social media having missed their own chances to reach 21. Djokovic felt the weight of history so heavily that he was unable to produce anything like his best in the US Open final against Medvedev last summer.
Nadal, though, takes a different approach, with his place in the pantheon of tennis less important than the chance simply to experience another glorious night, especially after he feared his career may be over as recently as six weeks ago because of a chronic foot problem.
He said: “Of course, for me it’s amazing to achieve another grand slam at this moment of my career. I know it’s a special number, 21. It’s a big significance, this title.
“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 the history, not the best of the history.
“For me it’s about enjoying nights like today. That means everything for me. It means even more to achieve the second Australian Open more than any other thing.”
It was a fittingly epic way for Nadal to achieve such a feat, the Spaniard fighting back from two sets down to win a match for the first time in nearly 15 years and finally wrapping up victory at 1.11am after five hours and 24 minutes.
That made it the second longest grand slam final ever after the near six-hour tussle Nadal lost to Djokovic here in 2012. Both men needed chairs to sit through the on-court speeches that night. Here, it was only the Spaniard who requested one.
“It has been a very emotional night,” said Nadal, who joins Djokovic as the only man in the Open era to win all the slam titles at least twice.
“Even now I am destroyed physically. I can’t think much, I can’t remember a lot of moments of the match.
“The support of the crowd has been just huge. I got very emotional during the whole match. Even if I was super tired, I couldn’t celebrate with them as usual, but I feel it inside, all the support helped me a lot.”
The crowd was almost as partisan as for Ashleigh Barty’s home triumph on Saturday night, with Medvedev jeered when he walked on court and at times during the match.
He taunted the crowd after saving a set point and winning the second but became increasingly agitated as the match slipped away.
In the press conference room afterwards, he began with a monologue expressing the hurt he feels at not receiving support and called the crowd “disappointing” and “disrespectful”.
“From now on I’m playing for myself, for my family, to provide my family, for people that trust in me, of course for all the Russians because I feel a lot of support there,” he said.
“If there is a tournament on hard courts in Moscow, before Roland Garros or Wimbledon, I’m going to go there even if I miss Wimbledon or Roland Garros or whatever.
“It’s disrespectful, it’s disappointing. I’m not sure after 30 years (old) I’m going to want to play tennis.
“The kid that was dreaming is not any more in me after today. It will be tougher to continue tennis when it’s like this.
“There were a lot of talks, young generation should do better, or people saying we really want young generation to go for it, to be better, to be stronger.
“I was pumped up, ‘Yeah, let’s try to give them a hard time’. Well, I guess these people were lying because every time I stepped on the court in these big matches, I really didn’t see much people who wanted me to win.”
Medvedev started much the stronger and twice recovered from a break down in the second set, saving a set point at 5-3 after the match was briefly interrupted when a protester dramatically leaped onto the court from the stands and was swiftly hauled away by security guards.
When the second seed, who was looking to become the first man in the Open era to follow up a first grand slam title by immediately winning a second, brought up three break points at 3-2 in the third, it seemed he was well on his way to victory.
But Nadal was galvanised by holding serve and Medvedev began to tire in body and mind. He kept fighting all the way to the line, breaking Nadal when he served for the title at 5-4 in the fifth only to drop serve again, and this time the Spaniard took his opportunity.
Nadal revealed he was driven on by his own near misses in Melbourne following his first title in 2009. He had lost four finals in the intervening years, including five-setters to Djokovic and Federer.
“I was repeating to myself during the whole match, I lost a lot of times here having chances,” he said. “I just wanted to keep believing until the end. I just wanted to give myself a chance.
“Tonight has been unforgettable. I feel very lucky. At the same time I think I fought a lot and I worked a lot to try to come back to the tour and to give myself a chance to keep playing tennis.”