MELBOURNE, Australia – After Rafael Nadal’s spectacular comeback in the Australian Open final on Sunday night, it was he – not Novak Djokovic or Roger Federer – who was the first to win 21 Grand Slam singles titles.
Fair or unfair, that’s the most important tennis achievement these days. While Sunday’s results hardly ended the debate over who is the greatest male tennis player of all time (don’t forget Rod Laver), Nadal is certainly the greatest male clay court player. All Time.
The French Open, played on red clay in Paris, begins on May 22. Nadal has won it 13 times, dominating as no man has ever dominated any major tennis tournament. .
It wouldn’t be surprising if Nadal quickly claimed his 22nd singles title at a Grand Slam, especially if Djokovic, the only man to beat him twice at Roland Garros, cannot compete in this year’s French Open because of him. have not yet been vaccinated against the coronavirus.
The French government is banning athletes, both French and foreigners, from accessing sports venues or participating in events if they do not have immunization cards. But people who have not been immunized can still have a valid pass if they have been recently infected with the coronavirus.
Currently, the vaccination exemption period is six months from the date of infection, but on February 15, the extension will be reduced to four months. That means Djokovic, who gave evidence that he tested positive in Serbia on December 16, will be eligible to compete in France until the end of April without vaccinations. .
But the French government could change its vaccination regulations if the number of cases or hospitalizations falls in the spring. Results of the French presidential election April could also affect health policy and it is likely, however far-fetched, that French Open organizers could negotiate an exemption or extension of grace period for unvaccinated players. , although there are hardly any large numbers of unvaccinated players on this stage.
It seems too soon to remove Djokovic, 34, from Roland Garros, where he win title last year. He beat Nadal there in a semifinal The climax was in the tense third set before Nadal’s lackluster performance, partly because chronic leg pain kept him out for much of the rest of the season, including Wimbledon, the Olympics and the US Open.
“Look, if Novak comes back, I think we’re talking about Rafa and Novak going to France as the favorite couple,” said Darren Cahill, ESPN’s top analyst and coach. . “Obviously you have to beat Rafa in five sets on clay, and we’ve seen how difficult that is, but Novak has played quite impressively there over the last few years.”
Currently, Djokovic is missing a match in 2022 after watching the Australian Open from afar (and sending congratulation message for Nadal, who was supposed to be in Djokovic’s draw).
Djokovic is got into and is expected to play in the ATP tournament in Dubai starting on February 21. But if he remains unvaccinated, he will request an exemption to fly to the United States to compete in March in BNP Paribas Open in Indian Wells, California. and at the Miami Open. Prior coronavirus infection is not grounds for an exemption, but those with a “recorded medical contraindication” to vaccination may be granted one. It’s unclear if that provision would apply to Djokovic, who also holds a Serbian passport, or if he even wants to travel to the US in March.
But if Djokovic goes to Dubai, it will be a big hint that he is eager to compete, and a booming Djokovic will be a dangerous Djokovic because of the frustration and humiliation he has experienced in Australia.
“I think Novak uses this to fuel him up,” Cahill said. “I think he’s still looking for improvement in his game and I think we’ll still see an unbelievable level from Novak over the next few years.”
Medvedev, who placed 2nd, is ready to be the most stubborn player. He beat Djokovic last year US Open Finals, a loss that prevented Djokovic from completing the Grand Slam.
But Nadal’s victory, unexpected and sensational, could open up new prospects for Djokovic and Federer, who are 40 years old but are training for the possibility of a return later this year, perhaps in time for Wimbledon, after another. knee surgery in 2021. It’s hard to see Federer as a title favorite anywhere, but why not a factor on the pitch or the hard ground?
Cahill said: “I think what Rafa did was also able to put some fuel in Roger’s tank. “Roger can say, ‘If Rafa is out there doing it, why can’t I if I’m healthy and still love the game?’ So I think this energizes the Big Three.”
Nadal will feel energized as he recovers from his reaffirmation. He was walking cautiously on Monday as he posed for pictures with the Norman Brookes Challenge Cup in a Melbourne park after not sleeping until 5am that morning.
A teamfight wouldn’t be suitable for Medvedev, considering how well Nadal judged. He talked about joy in “suffering”. When he won his first Australian Open championship in five sets at 2009, he told a small group of us the next day, in his still developing English, “Perhaps I’d rather fight to win than win.”
That phrase still holds true 13 years after Nadal got out of big tennis trouble. Although Nadal has done extraordinary things in his years on this earth (and clay), he has never bounced back from a two-set deficit to win a Grand Slam title.
His 5 hours and 24 minutes win over Medvedev was one of Nadal’s trademark victories, since beating Federer in the 2008 Wimbledon final, which was on the short list of great matches. greatest.
Cahill said: “Wimbledon are two athletes at the peak of their careers playing unbelievable tennis. “This is a little bit different because of the path Rafa took to get there and the history behind it.”
Nadal insists his post-match emotions are stronger at the age of 35. Medvedev may take note. He was so deflated by his loss of lead and heard the crowd cheer his error – and scream at Nadal – that he said he was disillusioned with the sport and would probably didn’t play at the age of 30.
Novak Djokovic stalemate with Australia
“After today, the child of daydreaming is no longer in me,” Medvedev said. “It’s going to be more difficult to continue tennis when it’s like this.”
Yevgeny Kafelnikov, the first Russian to win the men’s singles title, said Medvedev “will get over it in 10 days” as the frustration dissipates.
But Medvedev certainly has a lot to learn, not just from the final but from Nadal, who, unlike Medvedev, has never mocked the crowd or humiliated the umpire, both of which Medvedev did. in Melbourne.
Nadal has earned his raving fanbase, all the more noisily on Sunday because he is a weaker underdog. But the collective strength of the Big Three should make it clear to Medvedev and the other young players that there is life beyond 30 on the tour.
Not only did Nadal win 13 French Opens – a record that may never be broken – he also won four US Opens, two Wimbledons, two Olympic golds (one singles, one doubles). , five Davis Cups and many other titles.
But Sunday’s win is especially palatable because it seems so unlikely a few weeks before that. Nadal’s leg condition, which was slow to improve even after he had surgery on September 11, left him feeling helpless.
Nadal said his condition, which affects the small bones in his foot, will never fully resolve, but he says it doesn’t bother him in Melbourne as he chases down shots by Medvedev and beat the winner on the sprint.
His coach, Carlos Moyá, told L’Équipe, the French newspaper. “I don’t know if he’s the best player in the world, but he reads the game better than everyone else.”
When an increasingly weary Medvedev began to try to shorten the score with unusual drop shots and risky tactics, the message was not for Nadal.
“I think that gave Rafa a lot of energy,” Cahill said. “Just hang on to that and keep pushing and pushing. You never know what will happen.”
Well, now we know, and that’s phenomenal.
https://www.nytimes.com/2022/01/31/sports/tennis/nadal-djokovic-federer.html Next for Rafael Nadal? His specialty, the French Open.