Two weeks ago it was hard to imagine the Australian Open with no sign of either Novak Djokovic or Peng Shuai. But the tournament was given a resounding flourish in the end when Spain’s Rafael Nadal staged one of the most phenomenal comebacks in finals history to rewrite men’s singles accomplishments, and Ashleigh Barty ended Australia’s drought of homegrown winners at the year’s first Grand Slam.

Victorious in a marathon five-hour twenty-four minute contest in the final, Nadal raised the bar for historic success in men’s Grand Slam history, winning his second Australian Open after a thirteen-year gap and recording a world-first 21st Grand Slam victory in the men’s game. And if Nadal was Australia’s adopted favourite in the men’s final, Ash Barty ended the country’s own wait, becoming only the second Australian player after Chris O’Neil to win the Open, after a gap of 44 years.

To think the Australian Open almost became a distraction to itself, with attention swinging the way of world no.1 Novak Djokovic, whose unclear vaccination status and mysterious medical exemption certificate failed to cut it with the Australian government. Restricted to an immigration hotel under dubious conditions, the Djokovic family drama became the sole focus, with some players including Nadal wishing the controversy away so the focus could return to the tennis on the court.

It is therefore a mark of great victory that not only were the Australian Open finals in the men’s and women’s game such resounding crowd-pullers, but also showcased two worthy champions whose own heroics are enough to script tales that will make the vaccination controversy vanish without trace.

If Ashleigh Barty came through a tight contest with 28 year old Danielle Collins of the USA in the women’s singles final on Saturday - with a 6-3, 7-6(2) margin of victory that looked closer than it did at final count - Sunday saw an epic battle between Nadal and Russia’s Daniil Medvedev, the former standing on the cusp of history, tied alongside Roger Federer and Djokovic with 20 Grand Slam titles to his name.

Like the deportation of Novak Djokovic, the controversy surrounding Peng Shuai’s mysterious absence could have well overshadowed the women’s game and the global sport of tennis, particularly given that the Australian Open organizers had to do an about turn after initially deciding to quash protestors wearing the “Where is Peng Shuai?” t-shirts.

Yet champions tend to shine, and that is exactly what we saw from Barty and Nadal. Although Barty had a seemingly less arduous road against Collins on Saturday, she still had to stave off a late resurgence from the American to keep her cool and win the Grand Slam, sending her home crowd into a tizzy.

For a junior Wimbledon champion who felt disillusioned for a time in late 2014, Ash Barty has had an interesting career graph that even saw her play cricket for a time with the Brisbane Heat team in the Women’s Big Bash League. Her climb back to the echelons of tennis history and success is great testimony to the wealth of Australian talent in the women’s game, drawing overwhelming crowd support despite the absence of the seasoned champion, Serena Williams.

The pressure of performing at home, carrying the no.1 seed on her back, did not prove deterrent to the versatile young Australian player, who eventually came through in straight sets to the jubilation of the Australian public who hadn’t seen an Australian winner since way back in 1978, also in the women’s game.

With three of the four Grand Slams now in her kitty, having won the French Open in 2019 and the Wimbledon title in 2021, Barty is now only one Slam away from completing the set.

“It’s just been an incredible journey over these past 20 years of hitting a tennis ball, but particularly the last five or six years in this second phase of my career,” said the 25 year old who even took up golf at a time when she felt unsure about the travel situation, having missed Grand Slams during the pandemic.

But the biggest story coming out of the Australian Open has to be the case of aging men’s champions vying for history.

It seems like eons ago that Pete Sampras’ record of 14 Grand Slams was considered a rare feat. Tied in a three-way battle, it seemed even Nadal had only an outside shot of racing ahead of Federer and Djokovic, given how since August he has faced a potentially career-ending injury with degenerative bone disease in his foot that prevented him playing at the U.S. Open after having missed Wimbledon because of issues stemming from fatigue.

Having trained very little, then, Nadal’s path was only slightly made easier by Federer’s absence at this Australian Open, with the Swiss grandmaster nursing a knee injury, and by Djokovic’s vaccine saga. Marking his 29th Grand Slam final, Nadal’s victory – the 21st – brought home the sweet taste of Australian Open success many years after he first won the title back in 2009.

Not in 15 years has Nadal been able to make a comeback from being two sets down in a Grand Slam. For a time on Sunday it seemed that destiny was beckoning Medvedev, who was also instrumental in stopping Djokovic from adding to his own titles at the US Open last year. With his opponent two sets up and threatening to run away with one more set under his belt, Nadal brought all of his champion repertoire to the front, causing Medvedev to get increasingly frazzled, and the crowd clearly turning both, boorish and Spanish in support in a nerve racking thriller of a final.

Nadal’s indefatigable comeback certainly put the once-confident 25 year old Russian under pressure. All Nadal needed was a solitary break in serve to level the scores after the second set that seemed to be the turning point, a tiebreaker that went Medvedev’s way but brought Nadal back to life.

Medvedev fought back briefly in the fifth set, breaking Nadal to bring the score to 5-4, but Nadal would break right back and then eventually win the final set at close to the five and a half mark, the eventual scoreline reading 2-6, 6-7(5), 6-4, 6-4, 6-4.

For the thirty-five year old Spaniard whose injuries put him out of commission and training, it was sweet but unexpected victory. Not usually given to expressing his emotions on court, an ecstatic and stunned Nadal turned to his posse, laughing in shock as he described his feelings.

“This has been one of the most emotional matches of my career. One and a half months ago, I didn’t know if I would be playing tennis again, how I fought to be here. Thank you all for the support, you are all just amazing. It’s going stay in my heart for the rest of my life.”

With this stunning feat, Nadal now joins Djokovic amongst his contemporaries and former greats Rod Laver and Roy Emerson as the only men to have won each Grand Slam title twice over their careers.

That the comeback was not just on court but in terms of Nadal’s Australian Open history where he lost every final in 2012, 20214, 2017 and 2019 after his first win in 2009 says it all of a career that nearly came to an abrupt end last year.

For Medvedev this was his second Grand Slam final defeat at the hands of the Spaniard, having last lost in five sets to Nadal at the 2019 US Open final. Although the crowds got under his skin for a time, with him calling them as being “disrespectful” and “empty brains” lacking in IQ, the Russian also considered his nationality may have come in the way of support for his stellar efforts on court at the Rod Laver Arena.

For those who might be tempted to write off Nadal’s success in light of the absence of Federer and Djokovic who has nine Australian Open titles to his name, it is to be remembered that every win for the trio is a delay for the coming of the next generation of champions, in the likes of Medvedev, Stephanos Tsitsipas, Alexander Zverev and even Matteo Berrettini, keeping the competitive edge on an even keel in the men’s game.

Nadal’s stupendous victory does little though to the rankings, where Djokovic maintains his top world ranking and Medvedev his second spot. But it does push history to another level, making the French Open another highly anticipated affair still months away, awaiting not only on Federer’s fitness but also, sweating on Djokovic’s vaccination status.

Federer’s message to Nadal is worth mentioning here: “What a match! To my friend and great rival @RafaelNadal, 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!”

What is stunning about Nadal and Barty’s wins is their triumph through adversity which makes for better headlines than when the tournament started.

Acknowledging how her career’s second innings has shaped up, Barty stated, “I’ve grown so much as a person. Without that adversity (prior to 2015), I wouldn’t be half the person or player that I am now. We all have to find our low points to grow from them. Being able to do that and make a really incredible team for the second phase has been the best part of it.”

That she still does not feel like a winner despite joining Nadal, Federer, Djokovic and Serena Williams as the only active players to win on majors on three surfaces says much about the modesty of her career that has seen her for two years at the top of the women’s rankings.

But while the Australian Open has not been short on controversy, at a late stage there was more to come - for the most part overshadowed but not gone unnoticed.

While Australia has multiple reasons to celebrate besides Barty’s victory, with a men’s doubles win with Nick Kyrgios and Thanasi Kokkinakis, tempers were evident as were differences when their compatriot on the other side of the doubles net, Max Purcell, talked about the game: “I think it was great for ticket sales here but I’m not sure how it was taken overseas. If you’re watching some of Nick and Thanasi’s matches earlier in the week and you are overseas, maybe you get turned off tennis a little bit.”

Not one to hold back, Nick Kyrgios responded on social media with, “As for @maxpurchell you donut, regarding your comments after the match, you clearly have n o idea about entertainment and sport. If you haven’t noticed there is a reason why people actually come to my matches. It’s because the level and my game are actually worth watching.

“Next time you lose another slam final, you should just put your head down and try to figure out how to play the big points better. no need to slate other Aussies in the media cuz people would rather watch paint dry than your game style.”

And Kyrgios did not stop there, taking the expletive f*** word to the media for thinking himself a bigger draw than Barty.

“Honestly I said nothing disrespectful to @ashbarty. I said that the crowd this year was amazing and I feel as if @the-kokk1 and I were a big part of it.”

“All I said was that when people watch me around the world the stadiums are full.”

What need not be stated so blatantly or in such harsh terms is that the quality of the matches tends to speak for itself. In the case of the Australian Open, fortunately there has been less banter and more high quality matches, none more than in the thrilling finals to the men’s and women’s singles that definitely ticked the right boxes, to make this a stunning first Grand Slam of the year, an epoch making one already for Ashleigh Barty, Rafael Nadal and the sport of tennis.