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Rafael Nadal’s success means Novak Djokovic is running out of time to be the greatest

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Champions. Never count them out.

On Sunday night, Daniil Medvedev learned that firsthand as Rafael Nadal made an unlikely climb to a record 21st grand slam men’s singles title, elevating himself, for now, above his great rivals, Roger Federer and Novak Djokovic, if in number of titles won only.

But it is somewhere that Nadal might stay in something of an ironic twist.

That he took the record lead by coming from two sets down to win in five — something he had only done twice in his illustrious career and not once since 2007 when he was 22 — is a mind-bending achievement.

It’s also not what one expects from a 35-year-old.

Rafael Nadal hugs and kisses the Australian Open trophy as Daniil Medvedev watches on after their final.
Rafael Nadal kisses the Norman Brookes Challenge Cup as he celebrates victory over Daniil Medvedev.(Getty Images: Clive Brunskill)

That Nadal did it against Medvedev, a metronomic but beguiling tennis puzzle — who has in the past 24 months risen from an also-ran to one of the premier players in the game — is beyond compare.

Medvedev has taken serious scalps on his rise to world number two, including Nadal’s, and he has risen past other players of his generation, such as Alexander Zverev and Stefanos Tsitispas, his semifinal victim, in doing so.

And, in the US Open final, he reduced Djokovic, who was chasing the Grand Slam to a weeping mess.

Yet Nadal had his measure.

And that was despite Medvedev hitting 20 more aces, seven more winners, making 16 fewer unforced errors and seven more total points.

When Medvedev was asked about the match and Nadal’s performance, it was little wonder his response typified that of a man who could not believe he had just lost.

A Russian male tennis player hits a backhand return at the Australian Open.
Daniil Medvedev says he thought Nadal might fade as the match went on, but that never eventuated.(Getty Images: Daniel Pockett)

“It was insane,” Medvedev said of the match and Nadal’s performance.

“I think the level was very high.

“You raised your level after two sets for the 21st grand slam.

“I thought, ‘He is going to get tired’ and, maybe, he did just a little, but [he] still won the match.”

It was part Andy Roddick after Wimbledon in 2009 and running into a red-hot Federer, where Roddick had played brilliantly but lost.

Roddick was just as bemused after that match.

Medvedev will have more days in the tennis sun though.

Nadal’s moments, like those of his frenemy, the 40-year-old Federer, are dimming.

A composite of Rafael Nadal, Roger Federer and Novak Djokovic.
Rafael Nadal is now one ahead of Roger Federer and Novak Djokovic in the quest to finish their careers with the most men’s grand slam titles.(AP)

That much was obvious as he spoke, post-match, about how special the title was, how hard the road back to the tour was and his uncertainty about making another Australian Open appearance.

Nadal, though, has made it back, while Federer has battled so many injury issues in recent years and has seen his game decline to a level where flashes of brilliance are all tennis fans seem to get.

Collectively, we and they will take it, but it’s unlikely Federer will ever hold aloft a singles trophy on the final day of any grand slam, even his beloved Wimbledon, again.

That’s not naysaying. It’s a fact of sport: age is a killer.

Federer is already the second-oldest man to ever win a slam and he did it at the 2018 Australian Open, aged 36 years, 5 months and 7 days.

Ken Rosewall playing in the Australian Open in the 1960s with his beloved wooden racquet.
Ken Rosewall playing in the Australian Open in the 1960s with his beloved wooden racquet.(Supplied: Facebook)

The only man older was Australian great Ken Rosewall, who won his home slam at 37 years, 1 month and 24 days and ‘Muscles’ was more a guile than power player.

In reality, the race past 20 majors for the Artful Roger is likely over.

It would seem obvious to say that Nadal now holds pole position for the race to be the man with the most grand slam singles titles to his name.

He’s on 21, just claimed a title where he has had miserable luck in the past, and is heading to the clay of Roland Garros for the next slam, where he has won 13 titles.

Nadal has now won two out of two slam titles when Djokovic has been absent, here in Australia this fortnight and the 2017 US Open, while Djokovic has won in the 2013 Australian Open and 2021 Wimbledon titles with Nadal missing.

But, in Paris, there is no guarantee Djokovic will be there either.

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The Serbian has strong conviction in his beliefs, whether they be on the tennis court or off it. That much was evidenced by his stoush with the Australian government before he was deported.

Right now, the French have said all those who play in Paris will be required to be vaccinated against COVID-19, something Djokovic was not, as of his exit from Australia.

However, with Nadal now ahead of him — and Medvedev leading the rise of younger players — could Djokovic be compelled to get the jab?

It’s a vexing question and one for the coming months but complicating matters will be his desire to statistically be remembered as the greatest male tennis player who ever lived.

“Throughout my career, I have always been honest enough to say that the history of our sport is too big a motivation,” Djokovic said at the end of 2021.

“It is an objective, yes, to prove that I can break all the records with all the results that I can obtain on the tour professionally.”

For Nadal, though, he is more blasé, saying this week that the record was not his main objective.

“In terms of what can happen in the future, honestly I really don’t care that much,” Nadal said.

“I’m not going to be frustrated if Novak or Roger finishes their career with more grand slams than me.

“I mean, let’s enjoy the situation that we did, every one of us. We did very special things in our sport.”

Perhaps that lack of pressure will be what tells — or already did against Medvedev: the lack of a crushing weight on his shoulders.

But, if there is no Novak in Paris, and if Nadal wins — at 34 and turning 35 in May — Djokovic, too, might just be running out of time in the race for history.

It’s a history that, right now, seems to be Nadal’s for the taking, whether he cares or not.



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