MELBOURNE, Australia — After Rafael Nadal’s stupendous comeback in the Australian Open final on Sunday night, it is he — not Novak Djokovic or Roger Federer — who is the first man to win 21 Grand Slam singles titles.
Fairly or unfairly, it is the tennis record that matters most these days. Though Sunday’s outcome hardly ends the debate about who is the greatest men’s player of all time (don’t forget Rod Laver), there is no doubt that Nadal is the greatest men’s clay-court player of all time.
The French Open, which is played on red clay in Paris, begins on May 22. Nadal has won it 13 times, dominating as no man has dominated any major tennis tournament.
It would be no surprise if Nadal struck quickly for Grand Slam singles title No. 22, particularly if Djokovic, the only man to beat him twice at Roland Garros, is unable to play in this year’s French Open because he remains unvaccinated against the coronavirus.
The French government is banning athletes, both French and foreign, from accessing sports venues or taking part in events if they do not have a vaccination pass. But unvaccinated individuals can still hold a valid pass if they have had a recent coronavirus infection.
For now, the exemption from vaccination is six months from the date of infection, but on Feb. 15, the grace period will be reduced to four months. That would mean Djokovic, who has presented evidence that he tested positive in Serbia on Dec. 16, would be eligible to compete in France until late April without being vaccinated.
But the French government could change the rules on vaccination passes if case numbers or hospitalizations drop by the spring. The outcome of the French presidential election in April could also affect health policy, and there is the possibility, however remote, that French Open organizers could negotiate an exemption or extension of the grace period for unvaccinated players, even though there are hardly an overwhelming number of unvaccinated tour-level players at this stage.
It seems too early to rule Djokovic, 34, out of Roland Garros, where he won the title last year. He beat Nadal there in a semifinal that peaked in a bravura third set before Nadal faded, in part because of the chronic foot pain that forced him to miss most of the rest of the season, including Wimbledon, the Olympics and the U.S. Open.
“Look, if Novak does return, I think we’re talking about Rafa and Novak going into the French as the co-favorites,” said Darren Cahill, the ESPN analyst and leading coach. “Obviously you’ve got to be able to beat Rafa over five sets on clay, and we’ve seen how difficult that’s been, but Novak has been pretty damn impressive there the last few years.”
For now, Djokovic is short on match play in 2022 after watching the Australian Open from afar (and sending a congratulatory message to Nadal, who was supposed to be in Djokovic’s section of the draw).
Djokovic is entered and expected to play in the ATP tournament in Dubai that begins on Feb. 21. But if he remains unvaccinated, he would require an exemption to fly to the United States to compete in March in the BNP Paribas Open in Indian Wells, Calif. and in the Miami Open. A prior coronavirus infection is not grounds for an exemption, but individuals with “documented medical contraindications” to receiving the vaccine can be granted one. It is unclear whether that provision could apply to Djokovic, who also holds a Serbian passport, or if he is even interested in traveling to the U.S. in March.
But if Djokovic heads to Dubai, that will be a big hint that he is eager to compete, and a fired-up Djokovic will be a dangerous Djokovic given the frustration and humiliation he experienced in Australia.
“I think Novak uses this to fuel the fire he’s always played with,” Cahill said. “I think he’s still searching for improvement in his game, and I think we’ll still see an unbelievable level from Novak over the next couple years.”
Daniil Medvedev, who is ranked No. 2, was poised to become the top hardcourt player. He had already beaten Djokovic in last year’s U.S. Open final, a loss that prevented Djokovic from completing the Grand Slam.
But Nadal’s victory, surprising and stirring, could open up new perspectives for Djokovic and Federer, who is 40 but training for the possibility of returning later this year, perhaps in time for Wimbledon, after another knee surgery in 2021. It is difficult to see Federer as a title favorite anywhere, but why not as a factor on grass or hardcourts?
“I think what Rafa did can put a little fuel in Roger’s tank, too,” Cahill said. “Roger could say, ‘If Rafa is out there still doing it, why can’t I do it if I get healthy and still have that love of the game?’ So, I think this energizes the Big Three.”
Nadal should feel energized once he recovers from his reaffirming run down under. He was walking gingerly on Monday as he posed for photos with the Norman Brookes Challenge Cup in a Melbourne park after not getting to sleep until 5 o’clock that morning.
A rout would not have felt right against Medvedev, considering how much Nadal relishes a good fight. He has talked about the joy in “suffering.” When he won his first Australian Open in five sets in 2009, he told a small group of us the next day, in his still-evolving English, that, “Maybe I like more fighting to win than to win.”
That phrase still rang true 13 years later as Nadal escaped from big tennis trouble. Though Nadal has done prodigious things in his years on this earth (and clay), he had never rallied from a two-set deficit to win a Grand Slam title.
His five-hour-and-24-minute triumph over Medvedev was one of Nadal’s trademark victories, up there with his defeat of Federer in the 2008 Wimbledon final that is on every short list of the greatest matches.
“That Wimbledon was two athletes in the prime of their careers playing unbelievable tennis,” Cahill said. “This was a little bit different because of the road Rafa had traveled to get there and the history behind it.”
Nadal confirmed that the post-match emotions were more powerful at age 35. Medvedev might take note. He was so deflated by losing his lead and hearing the crowd cheer his errors — and roar for Nadal — that he said he was disillusioned with the sport and might not play past age 30.
“The kid that was dreaming is not anymore in me after today,” Medvedev said. “It will be tougher to continue tennis when it’s like this.”
Yevgeny Kafelnikov, the first Russian to man to win a major singles title, said Medvedev “will get over it in 10 days” as the disappointment fades.
But Medvedev certainly has much to learn, not just from the final but from Nadal, who, unlike Medvedev, has never taunted a crowd or humiliated a chair umpire, both of which Medvedev did in Melbourne.
Nadal has earned his passionate fan base, which was all the louder on Sunday because he was an underdog. But the Big Three’s collective staying power should make it clear to Medvedev and other young players that there is life after 30 on tour.
Nadal has not only won 13 French Opens — a record that may never be broken — he has also won four U.S. Opens, two Wimbledons, two Olympic gold medals (one singles, one doubles), five Davis Cups and scores of other titles.
But Sunday’s triumph was especially savory because it seemed so unlikely a few weeks earlier. Nadal’s foot condition, which had been slow to improve even after he had surgery on Sept. 11, had left him feeling powerless.
Nadal said his condition, which affects a small bone in his foot, will never be entirely resolved, but he said it did not bother him in Melbourne as he chased down Medvedev’s drop shots and smacked forehand winners on the sprint.
“His tennis I.Q. is off the charts,” 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 them all.”
When an increasingly weary Medvedev began trying to shorten points with drop shots and unusually risky tactics, the message was not lost on Nadal.
“I think that gave Rafa a lot of energy,’” Cahill said. “Just hang in there and keep pushing and pushing. You never know what’s going to happen.”
Well, we know now, and it was extraordinary.