Can Nadal extend his Grand Slam record at Roland-Garros?

MELBOURNE, Australia — After Rafael Nadal’s tremendous comeback in the Australian Open final on Sunday night, it’s him — not Novak Djoko...


MELBOURNE, Australia — After Rafael Nadal’s tremendous comeback in the Australian Open final on Sunday night, it’s him — not Novak Djokovic or Roger Federer — who is the first man to win 21 singles titles in the Grand Slam.

Rightly or wrongly, it is the tennis record that matters the most these days. While Sunday’s result won’t end the debate over who is the greatest men’s player of all time (don’t forget Rod Laver), there’s no doubt that Nadal is the greatest men’s clay player in history. all the time.

The French Open, which is played on clay in Paris, begins on May 22. Nadal has won it 13 times, dominating like no man has dominated any major tennis tournament.

It wouldn’t be surprising if Nadal struck fast for the No. 22 Grand Slam singles title, especially if Djokovic, the only man to beat him twice at Roland Garros, can’t play at Roland Garros this year. because he is still not vaccinated against the coronavirus.

Djokovic, who is still number 1, was expelled from Australia on January 16, the day before the Australian Open, after his visa was revoked. For now, his chances of competing in Paris are not clear.

The French government prohibits athletes, French and foreign, from accessing sports sites or participating in events if they do not have a vaccination card. But unvaccinated people can still hold a valid pass if they have had a recent coronavirus infection.

For now, the vaccination exemption is six months from the date of infection, but on February 15, the grace period will be reduced to four months. This would mean Djokovic, who presented proof that he tested positive in Serbia on December 16, would be eligible to compete in France until the end of April without being vaccinated.

But the French government could change the rules on vaccination passes if the number of cases or hospitalizations drops by spring. The result of the French presidential election in April could also affect health policy, and there is the possibility, however remote, that French Open organizers will negotiate an exemption or extension of the grace period for unvaccinated players, even if it there are hardly an overwhelming number of unvaccinated tour-level players at this stage.

It seems too early to exclude Djokovic, 34, from Roland Garros, where he won the title Last year. There he beat Nadal in a semi final which culminated in a brave third set before Nadal disappeared, in part due to chronic foot pain which forced him to miss most of the rest of the season, including Wimbledon, the Olympics and the ‘US Open.

“Listen, if Novak comes back, I think we’re talking about Rafa and Novak coming into France as co-favorites,” said ESPN analyst and head coach Darren Cahill. “Obviously you have to be able to beat Rafa in five sets on clay, and we’ve seen how difficult that has been, but Novak has been pretty damn impressive in recent years.”

For now, Djokovic is short of match play in 2022 after watching the Australian Open from afar (and sending a congratulatory message to Nadal, who was supposed to be in the Djokovic draw section).

Djokovic is Between and is expected to take part in the Dubai ATP tournament which begins on February 21. But if he is still not vaccinated, he would need an exemption to travel to the United States to compete in March at the BNP Paribas Open in Indian Wells, California and the Miami Open. Prior coronavirus infection is not grounds for exemption, but people with “documented medical contraindications” to receiving the vaccine can get one. It is unclear whether this provision could apply to Djokovic, who also holds a Serbian passport, or if he is even interested in traveling to the United States in March.

But if Djokovic goes to Dubai, it will be a big sign that he is eager to compete, and an excited Djokovic will be a dangerous Djokovic given the frustration and humiliation he experienced in Australia.

“I think Novak is using that to fuel the fire that he’s always played with,” Cahill said. “I think he’s always looking to improve his game, and I think we’ll still see an incredible level from Novak over the next couple of years.”

Daniil Medvedev, who is ranked No. 2, was on his way to becoming the best hard-court player. He had already beaten Djokovic last year US Open final, a defeat that prevented Djokovic from completing the Grand Slam.

Corn Nadal’s victory, surprising and moving, could open new perspectives for Djokovic and Federer, who is 40 but is training for the possibility of returning 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 as a factor on grass or hard courts?

“I think what Rafa did can also put some fuel in Roger’s tank,” Cahill said. “Roger might say, ‘If Rafa is still there, why can’t I do it if I’m healthy and still have that love of the game? So I think that energizes the Big Three.

Nadal should feel energized once he recovers from his reaffirming run to the bottom. He walked cautiously on Monday as he posed for photos with the Norman Brookes Challenge Cup in a Melbourne park after not falling asleep until 5am that morning.

A rout wouldn’t have seemed fair against Medvedev, considering Nadal appreciates a good fight. He spoke of the joy of “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 fighting to win more than fighting to win.”

This phrase still rang true 13 years later as Nadal escaped major tennis problems. Although Nadal had done prodigious things in his years on this ground (and on clay), he had never recovered 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 making it onto every greatest match shortlist.

“This Wimbledon was two athletes at the peak of their careers playing incredible tennis,” Cahill said. “It was a bit different because of the road Rafa had traveled to get there and the story behind it.”

Nadal confirmed that post-match emotions are stronger at 35. Medvedev might take note. He was so deflated losing his lead and hearing the crowd cheering his mistakes – and roaring for Nadal – that he said he was disappointed in the sport and might not play after 30 years.

“The kid who dreamed is not in me after today,” Medvedev said. “It will be more difficult to continue tennis when it’s like this.”

Yevgeny Kafelnikov, the first Russian man to win a major singles title, said Medvedev “will recover in 10 days” as the disappointment fades.

But Medvedev certainly has a lot to learn, not just from the final but from Nadal, who unlike Medvedev never taunted a crowd or humiliated a chair umpire, which Medvedev did in Melbourne.

Nadal won over his passionate fan base, which was all the stronger on Sunday as an underdog. But the collective perseverance of the Big Three should make Medvedev and other young players realize that there is life after 30 years on tour.

Nadal not only won 13 Roland-Garros – a record that may never be broken – he also won four US Opens, two Wimbledons, two Olympic gold medals (one in singles, one in doubles), five Cups Davis and dozens of other titles.

But Sunday’s triumph was particularly tasty because it seemed so unlikely just weeks earlier. Nadal’s foot condition, which had been slow to improve even after surgery on 9/11, had left him helpless.

Nadal said his condition, which affects a small bone in his foot, will never be fully resolved, but he said he didn’t mind in Melbourne as he chased down Medvedev’s drop shots and hit forehand winners in the sprint.

“His tennis IQ is out of the ordinary,” 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 all of them.”

When an increasingly tired Medvedev began trying to shorten the points with unusually risky drop shots and tactics, the message was not lost on Nadal.

“I think it gave Rafa a lot of energy,” Cahill said. “Just hang on and keep pushing and pushing. You never know what will happen.

Well, we know now, and it was amazing.



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