Rafa Nadal roared back from two sets down to edge Daniil Medvedev in a classic Australian Open final and claim a record 21st Grand Slam title only months after fearing his glorious career might be over.
With Novak Djokovic forced out by deportation and Roger Federer recovering from knee surgery, the Spanish great is now one major title clear of his 'Big Three' rivals after surviving the 2-6 6-7(5) 6-4 6-4 7-5 thriller at Rod Laver Arena.
"It was one of the most emotional matches in my tennis career," Nadal said after the five-hour 24-minute epic.
"It's just amazing now (given) one month and a half ago I didn't know if I will be able to be back on the tour playing tennis again.
"And today I'm here in front of all of you having this trophy with me."
Riding a wave of raucous support from the crowd, a vintage Nadal pulled off his greatest escape to deny Medvedev again, less than three years after leaving the rangy Russian heartbroken in five sets at the 2019 U.S. Open final.
In a match steeped in drama that stretched into the early hours of Monday morning, sixth seed Nadal was two points from the title but was broken as he served for the match at 5-4. He held firm to break Medvedev again and served out the match to love, with a backhand volley the final coup de grace.
Dropping his racket, Nadal shook his head and grinned, then kicked a tennis ball away and pumped his fists in delight.
Tributes flew in from around the world, with Federer and Djokovic quick to congratulate him.
"A few months ago we were joking about both being on crutches. Amazing. Never underestimate a great champion," Federer wrote on social media.
"Amazing achievement," said Serbian Djokovic. "Always impressive fighting spirit that prevailed another time."
It was a triumph that defied time and logic, with the 35-year-old Nadal fighting back from a two-set deficit for the first time in 15 years -- the last time against Mikhail Youzhny at Wimbledon in 2007.
It came 10 years after losing a five-set marathon to Djokovic in the 2012 Australian Open, which lasted nearly six hours.
Having suffered three other final defeats in 2014, 2017 and 2019, Nadal can now savour a second crown at Melbourne Park, 13 years after beating Federer in another epic decider in 2009.
The long hair and pirate shorts of that era have fallen by the wayside, but the class and fighting spirit endure despite titanic battles with his body.
He missed Wimbledon due to fatigue and the U.S. Open with a chronic foot condition, leaving him on the brink of quitting the sport in late-2021.
'The kid stopped dreaming'
Just making the second week at Melbourne Park felt miraculous for the Spaniard, who joins Djokovic, Rod Laver and Roy Emerson as the only men to win all four Grand Slam titles at least twice each.
Thrashed by Djokovic in last year's final, U.S. Open champion Medvedev has now lost three out of his four major deciders.
Often booed and heckled by sections of the shamelessly pro-Nadal crowd, Medvedev admitted the frosty reception had hurt him, and he was still raw hours after the match. After a lengthy monologue in his post-match media conference, Medvedev said he would gladly skip Wimbledon or the French Open if he could instead play in front of home fans in Russia.
"The kid stopped dreaming. The kid is going to play for himself," he said with emotion. "It will be tougher to continue tennis when it's like this.
The hyped-up crowd was often unruly and one intruder jumped on the court to protest Australia's detention of refugees as Nadal struggled to serve out the second set.
After a brief delay as the protester was bundled off court by security, Medvedev went two sets up after sealing the tiebreak and flapped his hands at the crowd with a smirk. It proved a red rag to a bull as Nadal and the terraces united to harry Medvedev through the rest of the match.
The Russian was left begging for crowd control from the chair umpire as Nadal stormed back into the game.
"They are idiots. No brains. Empty brains. Probably in their life it must be very bad," he grumbled during a change of ends.
The 25-year-old's frustrations only grew as the match wore on and his court coverage waned. He frowned as a trainer worked on his left thigh but dragged himself out to make a game of it.
Nadal, however, was not to be denied.
Ten years Medvedev's senior, with creaky knees and a suspect foot, the Spaniard finished full of running, showing himself and the world that further records may yet be at his mercy.
Factbox on Spain's Rafa Nadal, who beat Daniil Medvedev 2-6 6-7(5) 6-4 6-4 7-5 in the Australian Open final on Sunday to win a men's record 21st Grand Slam title:
Age: 35 Country: Spain ATP ranking: 5 Seeding: 6
Grand Slam titles (21): Australian Open (2009, 2022); French Open (2005, 2006, 2007, 2008, 2010, 2011, 2012, 2013, 2014, 2017, 2018, 2019, 2020); Wimbledon (2008, 2010); U.S. Open (2010, 2013, 2017, 2019)
Early life: - Born in Manacor, Spain to Sebastian Nadal and Ana Maria Parera. - His uncle Miguel Angel Nadal was a former soccer player who represented Barcelona, RCD Mallorca and the Spain national team. - Introduced to tennis by another uncle, Toni, who encouraged his naturally right-handed nephew to play left-handed as it would give him an advantage. - Turned professional in 2001 and won the junior Davis Cup with Spain in 2002. Won the ATP newcomer of the year in 2003.
Career to date - Won his first ATP singles title in Poland in 2004.
- Defeated world number two Andy Roddick to guide Spain to the Davis Cup title in 2004. He won the tournament again in 2008, 2009, 2011 and 2019.
- Won the French Open on debut in 2005 and a year later beat Roger Federer in the final.
- In 2007, he became the first man since Bjorn Borg in 1980 to win a hat-trick of Roland Garros titles.
- Won his first Wimbledon title in 2008 with a five-set victory over Federer, a match dubbed the 'the greatest tennis match in history'.
- Won a gold medal at the 2008 Beijing Olympics for Spain in singles. Clinched the doubles gold with Marc Lopez at the 2016 Rio Games.
- Suffered his first French Open loss in 2009 to Sweden's Robin Soderling in the fourth round.
- Regained the title the following year, beating Soderling in the final. He also won Wimbledon for a second time in 2010 before claiming his first U.S. Open title, becoming the seventh man to win all four Grand Slams.
- Matched Borg's record of six French Open titles with his 2011 victory and overtook the Swede in 2012.
- Became the first man with eight titles at the same Grand Slam when he beat fellow Spaniard David Ferrer in the 2013 final at Roland Garros. He also won the U.S. Open that year.
- Became the first man to win five successive French Open titles in 2014.
- Won his second Grand Slam of 2017 at Flushing Meadows after a 10th French Open title in June.
- Claimed an 11th French Open title and his 17th major with victory over Dominic Thiem in 2018.
- Defeated Thiem again in 2019 final to seal his 12th Roland Garros title. He also won a fourth U.S. Open crown by defeating Russian Daniil Medvedev in the final.
- Matched Federer's record of 20 Grand Slam titles by defeating Djokovic in the French Open final in 2020.
- Got his 1,000th victory on the ATP Tour at the 2020 Paris Masters, becoming the fourth man in the professional era to achieve it.
- Suffered only his third-ever loss at Roland Garros in 2021 when he was beaten by Djokovic in the semi-finals.
- Missed chunks of the 2021 season, including Wimbledon, the Olympics and the U.S. Open, due to a long-standing foot injury.
- Defeated Medvedev in the 2022 Australian Open final to win a men's record 21st Grand Slam title.