Rafael Nadal breaks the Grand Slam record: Is the men's tennis GOAT debate over?

Nadal makes singles history with 21st Grand Slam title (1:00)

In the Australian Open final, Nadal became the first male player to win 21 Grand Slam titles. (1:00)

On a weekend where the NFL began to bid farewell to one GOAT, men's tennis crowned its greatest ever -- for the time being at least. At 21 Grand Slam titles, Nadal is one ahead of Roger and Novak.

It's tennis like being the first to summit Everest or reach the Challenger Deep, on a level of success no other man has achieved in the sport. The GOAT debate in men's tennis is incredibly subjective and stretches beyond the mere detail of Grand Slam singles titles.

His five-set victory over the Russian was one of the greatest victories of all time. He had to come back from two sets down, in a match in which the momentum swung between the two, only to find another gear just as the other started to feel the toil of the match. Nadal has brought more to his game than his forehand. Despite the increasing pains and aches, he was able to win the match with drop shots and top-spin forehands. It was an amazing display.

The chase to 21 has been fascinating.

The chance for Nadal to go one better was given to him by the fact that both of the Australian Open's top players missed it. The next stage in the evolution of the Spanish great is what we have seen in the Nadal we have seen in Melbourne. The big three have all had spells of dominance. The Wimbledon final was the last chance for him to get to 21. Last year's US Open looked like it was going to be Djokovic's to lose, and recently it's been him who looked most likely to reach 21 first. In August, Nadal withdrew with a chronic foot problem, while Federer was out with a knee injury. In New York, he had a clean run, only to lose the final. At the Australian Open, Nadal was waiting to pounce, while Medvedev was the favorite.

It was the second time in the last 19 major finals that someone other than the Big Three had taken a Slam. While players have come and gone, the trio has held on to the sport.

The Swiss legend took 12 slams out of a possible 20 from 2003 to 2007, as he dominated when Nadal broke through. Then came Nadal's incredible spell from 2008 to 2010 as he won six slams, including that incredible 2008 Wimbledon final against Federer. The balance of power fell in his direction from 2011 to 2016 as he won 11 Grand Slams to Nadal's five. Nadal won four French Opens in a row after his injuries became more troublesome in 2015, and he went on to win 20 French Opens in a row.

Supporters of Nadal and his two sparring partners will look at different statistics to prove that they are GOAT-ness. In the Open era, Nadal has the most wins with 298, followed by the other two players. Due to his absence, the faithful of the man will put a damper on this triumph.

Even when he was asked about the significance of a triumph here, Nadal played down the importance of reaching 21. Seven weeks ago, Nadal was wondering if he would have to retire, but now he is eager to take a thousand-mile view of this spell of dominance. He prefers to talk about the three of them instead of signaling himself out. They have propelled each other on at various stages, each with their own rivalry with one another, but now it is more like they are on their own, fighting their own battles and keeping the light flickering through the clouds of retirement.

If I achieve one more Grand Slam than the others, or if the others achieve more Grand Slams than me, my future happiness depends on that.

We did very special things in our sport, so let's enjoy the situation that we did. Let's enjoy it. Doesn't matter the other thing.

This Grand Slam triumph will be treated in isolation by Nadal as he takes number 21. He prefers to look at this triumph against the backdrop of his recent recovery, rather than as a part of a 21-piece puzzle, having battled back from this 16-year foot injury and six-month absence to surpass his greatest expectations. This was a confusing win for Nadal - in the second-longest Grand Slam final in history - but as he threw the two punches of celebration and fell to his knees, it was this anchoring in the present that has kept Nadal going through Melbourne, never once talking up his chances.

He said ahead of the final that he would always try his best. I have a competitive spirit that is always with me.

This mentality has kept the trio ahead of the pack. They are far and away the best in the world when they are on top of their game.

If his foot holds up, then there is every chance that Nadal will take another step forward to number 22 and further cement his credentials as men.