Health

Up next for Rafael Nadal? His speciality, the French Open.

Fairly or unfairly, it is the tennis record that matters
most these days. Although 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
May 22. Nadal, 35, 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.

Djokovic, who is still No. 1, was deported from Australia
on Jan. 16, on the eve of the Australian Open, after his visa was revoked. For
now, his chances of competing in Paris are unclear.

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 US Open.

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“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,
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 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, California 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
travelling to the United States 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
US 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?

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“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 Monday as he posed for
photos with the Norman Brookes Challenge Cup in a Melbourne park after not
getting to sleep until 5 am that day.

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,
in his still-evolving English, told a small group of us the next day: “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. Although 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 5-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 shortlist 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 travelled to get there and the history
behind it.”

Nadal confirmed that the post-match emotions were more
powerful at his age. 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.

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“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 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 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 US 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 savoury 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 IQ is off the charts,” his coach, Carlos
Moyá, told L’Équipe, a 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.

© 2022 The New York Times Company

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