It was a guessing game that occupied the minds of tennis fans worldwide. - who will be the first to reach the record tally of 21 Grand Slam singles titles.

The race had reached its climactic stage at Wimbledon last year when Novak Djokovic drew level with Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal. Federer had set the pace for the race which started in 2003 when he won his first Grand Slam title. He maintained the early lead but in the second decade of the new millennium Nadal began catching up. And around the same time Djokovic emerged as a serious contender winning everywhere even as the two others seemed to slow down thanks to injuries.

The supremely fit Serb six years younger than Federer and five years younger than Nadal emerged as the front runner and all seemed set for him to notch up his record 21st title at the US Open last year. However in the last few years the quartet of GenNext players Daniil Medvedev, Stefanos Tsitsipas, Dominic Thiem and Alexander Zverev had narrowed the gap considerably even as the Big Three stayed just ahead. Medvedev scored a major point for the GenNext when he upset Djokovic in the US Open final. And so the Big Three all entered 2022 with 20 title wins.

And on the eve of the Australian Open Djokovic was clearly the favourite to edge in front with an injured Federer not taking part and Nadal just back from surgery on his foot having slipped to No 6 in the ATP rankings.

And then occurred the controversy surrounding Djokovic’s appearance at the year’s first Grand Slam, the details of which have been well chronicled. With Thiem not taking part it was upto Medvedev, Zverev and Tsitsipas to signal the change of guard. The trio were No 2, 3 and 4 in the ATP rankings and the way seemed clear for the GenNext to finally displace the Big Three.

Yes Nadal was still around but he had won his last Grand Slam at his favourite Roland Garros in 2020. Since then he had been bedeviled with injuries, a surgery on his left foot followed by a bout of Covid-19. Late last year he had even spoken of retiring after missing a huge chunk of the season including Wimbledon, the Olympics and the US Open. In his own words he said he did not expect to go all the way at Melbourne Park where his only previous success had come way back in 2009.

But then for Nadal who has had an injury ravaged career it has always been purely about mind over matter. Unbelievably he stitched together an eleven match winning streak following his arrival Down Under outlasting Medvedev an opponent ten years younger and the favourite for the title in the absence of Djokovic. Indeed under the floodlights on Sunday Nadal sweated profusely almost from the start leaving many in the stands if he would even last if the contest went the distance against the supremely fit Russian.

But one can never write off the athletic Spaniard and Medvedev himself put it aptly. ''Rafa played unreal, he raised his level.’’ Bounding around the court as only he can, varying the pace of the game with judicious use of the drop shot and serving admirably he emerged triumphant after an epic battle that lasted five hours and 24 minutes. It must also not be forgotten that in the quarterfinal a few days before he was involved in another five-setter with Denis Shapovalov.

But in coming back after being two sets down in the final Nadal proved that he is the toughest competitor in the contemporary game especially when one considers what he has had to endure for much of last season. As he said at the post match presentation ''It was one of the most emotional matches in my career. A couple of months ago I didn’t know if I would be able to be back on the tour playing tennis again.’’ Indeed in September last year he had posted a photograph of himself on crutches following the surgery on his foot. But then trust Nadal to give a new meaning to the sporting adage ''To the limit, and beyond.’

In the wake of Nadal’s sensational triumph the question arises as to what happens to the continuing duel for supremacy between the Big Three and the GenNext of players. One supposes it will continue through the season ahead. Nadal has proved that he can’t be written off and the next Grand Slam is the French Open which he has won 13 times. Djokovic once he is back after his problems with the vaccination is over is at the peak of his career.

But Medvedev, Tsitsipas who was a semifinalist at the Australian Open and Zverev who was a surprise early loser at the event are all very much near the top still hot on the heels of the Big Three. Only Thiem has fallen rather badly the latest rankings have him at 37. On the other hand Federer who has slid sharply in the rankings to 30 has not won a Grand Slam since January 2018 and in his 41st year is clearly past his best.

So it appears that the duel for supremacy will continue though it will now be the Big Two vs a trio of GenNext players.

The Tenacity of Rafael Nadal | The New Yorker