Lauded by his peers and adored by the crowd, Rafa seals place in tennis folklore

Roger Federer and Novak Djokovic have led the tributes to Rafael Nadal after the Spaniard surged ahead of his two great rivals with a record 21st grand slam triumph.

Jan 31, 2022, updated Jan 31, 2022
Rafael Nadal poses with the Australian Open men’s singles final trophy in the locker room at Melbourne Park in Melbourne on Monday. (AAP Image/Supplied by Fiona Hamilton, Tennis Australia)

Rafael Nadal poses with the Australian Open men’s singles final trophy in the locker room at Melbourne Park in Melbourne on Monday. (AAP Image/Supplied by Fiona Hamilton, Tennis Australia)

If the pair, who had both been locked with him on 20 slam wins, were feeling in any way deflated at losing a share of the sport’s most famous landmark, they didn’t show it in their gracious and swift responses to Nadal’s Australian Open win on Sunday night.

Djokovic, deprived of the chance to defend his crown and shoot for slam No.21 after being deported from Australia before the tournament in the now-infamous visa row, described his old foe’s comeback triumph over Daniil Medvedev as “amazing” while Federer hailed him as “inspirational.”

“Congratulations to @RafaelNadal for 21st GS,” Djokovic posted on Twitter. “Amazing achievement. Always impressive fighting spirit that prevailed another time.”

The 40-year-old Federer, who missed the event while recovering from knee surgery, said on social media: “What a match!

“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.

“I am proud to share this era with you and honoured to play a role in pushing you to achieve more. As you have done for me for the past 18 years.

“I am sure you have more achievements ahead but for now enjoy this one!”

Rod Laver, who watched the triumph in the stadium named after him at Melbourne Park, tweeted to Nadal that it had been his “privilege to watch you doing what you love”.

Three-time Australian Open champion Mats Wilander felt Nadal’s fightback from two sets down was the best comeback in the history of the Open era.

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“Winning the 21st grand slam title, 35 years old, and he beats the best player in the world in Daniil Medvedev. It is indescribable and I do not know where he finds that strength,” enthused Wilander on Eurosport.

Boris Becker, Djokovic’s former coach, made the pointed observation that Nadal might now have to be considered more than just the ‘king of clay’ because of his unreal 13 French Open triumphs.

“You make a mistake if you still call Rafa the clay court king,” said the German great.

“He has won on every surface and every grand slam tournament at least twice. He is the most successful player of all-time, we can say that loud and clear.”

Chris Evert described Nadal’s five-and-a-half hour defiant effort as “heroic”, while fellow women’s great Billie-Jean King saluted his “grit, guts, spirit and determination”.

Nadal recovered from two sets to love down for the first time in 15 years to defeat second seed Daniil Medvedev 2-6 6-7 (5-7) 6-4 6-4 7-5 in a drama-charged climax to the Open at Melbourne Park.

The landmark victory in a five-hour, 24-minute war of attrition that finished past midnight on Monday morning vaulted the Spaniard one slam clear of great rivals Roger Federer and Novak Djokovic on the all-time major titles leaderboard.

“If we put everything together – the scenario, the momentum, what (it) means – yeah, without a doubt (it’s) probably the biggest comeback of my tennis career,” said an overjoyed but exhausted Nadal.

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