MELBOURNE, Australia – Rafael Nadal has become used to making comebacks in an injury-ravaged career. This last one, though, may be the most unexpected — and satisfying.
Sidelined by a wrist injury for two long stretches last year, Nadal didn't believe he'd be playing at his top level and contending again for titles until later this spring, when the tour moves to his beloved clay.
Then he came to Melbourne and somehow kept grinding out win after win. He made it all the way to the Australian Open final, where he fell just short in his bid to win his 15th major by losing to long-time rival Roger Federer, 6-4, 3-6, 6-1, 3-6, 6-3.
It had been a lean couple of years for Nadal, but he believes he's back now and feeling confident he can pull out grueling five-set matches at majors again after struggling at times with self-doubt.
This is a good sign heading into his favorite major, the French Open, where Nadal can try to round off his trophy collection with an improbable No. 10.
"I believe that playing like this, good things can happen. Can happen here in this surface, but especially can happen on clay," he said. "On clay can be special."
Nadal has been searching for this kind of run since winning his last major at the French Open in 2014. Since then, his body has broken down time and again, perhaps most frustratingly at last year's French Open, where he was forced to withdraw before his third-round match against Marcel Granollers with a left wrist injury.
The injury flared up again at the end of the year and Nadal shut down his season early to rest and allow himself to fully heal.
It looks like a wise decision now.
Feeling refreshed and looking sharp, the Spaniard rallied twice to pull out five-set matches in Melbourne. He showed his superior fitness by outlasting a cramping Alexander Zverev to come back from a two-set-to-one deficit in the third round, and he narrowly edged Grigor Dimitrov in a five-hour thriller in the semifinals.
Given the fact he only had one fully day off to recover following the Dimitrov match, Nadal could have come out flat against Federer. But he showed the same fighting spirit from the first point to the last, saving an incredible nine of 11 break points in the fifth set before finally cracking under Federer's unrelenting pressure.
"I cannot say that I am sad. I wanted to win, yes, but I am not very sad. I did all the things that I could. I worked a lot during all these months," he said. "I enjoyed the competition. I won against the best players of the world, and I competed well against everybody."
And Nadal feels if he stays healthy, he could be on the verge of a resurgent season.
"The real thing is what makes me more happy, more than the titles, is go on the court and feel that I can enjoy the sport," he said.
"Today I am enjoying the sport."