MELBOURNE, Australia (AP) — Since Wimbledon ended last July, there's been so much discussion in tennis about the first man to win 21 Grand Slam titles.
The focus has been almost entirely on Novak Djokovic's bid; almost none of it on Rafael Nadal.
With the first Grand Slam title of 2022 to be determined Sunday, it's Nadal who is just one win away.
He’ll play the Australian Open final against U.S. Open champion Daniil Medvedev, who is aiming for back-to-back major titles and his own, albeit smaller, piece of history.
So long in the making, so many months off the tour for Nadal, and so much drama around Djokovic’s deportation the night before his Australian Open title defense was due to begin, makes the race for 21 so much more compelling.
Nadal, only last month, wasn't even sure if he'd get to Australia after long hours of frustrating and intensive rehabilitation on his foot injury that can never be fully fixed, and a bout of COVID-19.
“For me, it’s all about the Australian Open more than anything else,” Nadal said. “Being very honest, for me its much more important to have the chance to play tennis than win the 21, no?”
Nadal is tied for the record, 20, with the absent Djokovic — a nine-time Australian Open champion who had his visa revoked for failing to meet the country's strict COVID-19 requirements — and Roger Federer, who still recovering from right knee surgery.
Nadal moved to 20 with his French Open title in 2020. Federer, now 40, has been stuck on 20 since winning the 2018 Australian title. Djokovic moved from 17 to 20 with titles in Australia, Roland Garros and Wimbledon in 2021. He was one win victory from making it to 21 — and completing a calendar-year Grand Slam — until he lost to Medvedev in the U.S. Open final.
“Yeah, I’m going to play again against one of the greatest. And what’s funny, again, I’m going to play somebody going for their 21st Slam,” Medvedev said in an on-court TV interview after his heated semifinal win over Stefanos Tsitsipas. “I guess Rafa was watching (the U.S. Open final) near the TV . . . I don’t know who he was cheering for. I think Novak will be watching this one, also!"
Medvedev lost to Nadal in five sets in the 2019 U.S. Open final — his first at a Grand Slam — and lost to Djokovic in straight sets in the 2021 Australian Open final, before beating the Serbian star in straight sets at New York in September.
Any debate about which of the Big Three players will be considered the greatest of all isn't a concern for him.
“It’s great rivalry between them,” Medvedev said. "I’ll be honest . . . It’s not me going for the 21st, not me trying to break these records. I’m going for my second one.
“I know what Rafa is going for, I knew what Novak was going for. I’m not going to say ‘Oh, yeah, I am trying not to listen about this.’ But it’s kind of their thing, not mine. I’m just there to try to win the final."
Nadal is also trying to block out all the noise. He's said more than once that this Australian Open is his primary focus, and his life's work and meaning ultimately won't be overshadowed by who finishes up with the most major titles.
He hasn't changed anything about his ultra competitiveness on the court which, he says, is embedded in his DNA. But he's more conscious now of being grateful for being back on tour after times when he thought a foot problem might prematurely end his tennis career.
“Because that’s makes me more happy in terms of general life .. to be able to do the thing that I like to do more than achieving another Grand Slam,” he said. “Life, it’s about happiness and what make me happy. It’s about just having the chance to do what I like to do.”
Medvedev had an angry outburst at a chair umpire during a changeover in the semifinals, and then recovered his composure to beat Tsitispas.
He described as “emotional" his run in Australia, which included dealing with a hostile crowd in his second-round win over Nick Kyrgios, and having to save a match point and rally from two sets down to beat Felix Auger-Aliassime in a nearly five-hour quarterfinal.
After defeating Denis Shapovalov in a long quarterfinal, Nadal had a comparatively stress-free 6-3, 6-2, 3-6, 6-3 win over seventh-seeded Matteo Berrettini, who lost the Wimbledon final to Djokovic last year. Nadal skipped Wimbledon after losing to Djokovic in the French Open semifinals, and he didn't play at all after August.
Nadal even shed tears after confirming a spot in a Grand Slam final for the 29th time.
Since winning the title here in 2009, he lost in classic five-set finals to Djokovic in '12 and Federer five years later. His other losses were to Stan Wawrinka (2014) and Djokovic (2019).
“I have been a little unlucky (here) in my career with some injuries (and) I played some amazing finals with good chances," he said. "I feel very lucky that I won once. I never thought about another chance in 2022.”
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