Rafael Nadal confirmed his greatness in Melbourne – but this title should come with an asterisk
Rafael Nadal's come-from-behind win against Daniil Medvedev in the Australian Open men's singles final was an incredible achievement – but comes at a credibility deficit given that the sport's current best player, and the man who has dominated the event for a decade, was likely watching on a television screen thousands of miles away.
After months of speculation as to his vaccination status and if he would even be allowed set foot in Australia a year after he completed his third successive win (and ninth overall) inside the Rod Laver Arena, Djokovic was successfully made an example of by an Australian government eager to demonstrate tough border laws months out from an expected election.
And if Djokovic was the political pawn sacrificed at the altar of Covid-19 regulations, his rival Nadal – the man who had been critical of the Serb's vaccine-hesitant stance in the lead-in to the event – was the one who moved into checkmate in his absence.
To be clear, it is difficult to make the Spaniard into a pantomime-style villain in what has been the biggest scandal to engulf tennis in a generation – but he is clearly the beneficiary of Djokovic's misfortune.
No true tennis fan could dismiss Nadal's achievements within the sport from when he won his first Grand Slam in 2005 to Sunday's triumph. It is a story of sporting perseverance; of an ageing veteran dismissing injury and loss of form to claw himself back to the summit of tennis.
Books will be written about it. But those same books will also note the circumstances which surround the win – that of a player caught in a politically motivated tug-of-war.
Djokovic has remained mostly tight-lipped since his final appeal was dismissed and he was moved from a much-maligned detention hotel to an airport and put on the first flight home, but he did break his silence on social media soon after Nadal's five-round comeback was completed.
“There has been some outstanding tennis played at this year’s [Australian Open] and the finals were exceptional,” he wrote online.
“Congratulations to [Ash Barty] for an amazing performance in front of her home crowd and to [Danielle Collins] for an incredible tournament.
“Congratulations [Rafael Nadal] for 21st GS. Amazing achievement. Always impressive fighting spirit that prevailed another time.
“[Daniil Medvedev] gave it his all out there and played with the passion and determination we have come to expect from him,” he added.
One wonders if those congratulations came through gritted teeth. The script, if one existed for such things, was leaning towards Djokovic – the world's number one player – becoming the man to break out from the rest of the field and win that 21st Grand Slam, something he lauded as an "amazing achievement."
Instead, Nadal brings home a trophy which no one could truly deny him but which comes with the baggage of a very prominent asterisk attached to it.
Had Djokovic been injured, that is just what happens in sport. But this wasn't an absence enforced by a thigh strain or a wrist complaint, this was political will intersecting with athletic competition; two converging influences which have long been uneasy bedfellows.
In the end, Nadal will treasure his latest (and perhaps unlikeliest) Grand Slam win – but when it comes down to it, one wonders if he would rather have delivered a tournament-winning shot in a field of competitors which also included Novak Djokovic.
Alas, no one will ever know.
By John Balfe
The statements, views and opinions expressed in this column are solely those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of RT.