The tennis at the Australian Open was superb. It takes some chutzpah to write this at a tournament where the defending and winningest champion — nine in total and the last three in a row! — is barred due to a misunderstanding over medical exemptions to COVID vaccination. And this is especially so when the event’s organizers themselves were the ones who assured the champ he was welcome.
It will be a shame, but it will be historically accurate, if the tournament, the first of the year’s majors, goes into the stats books with an asterisk like this: “*champion denied chance to defend title.”
More, it should give the masters of Big Sports, who too often are acting like Big Government, Big Tech, big everything else, to ask themselves when the true sporting spirit, even if, of course, it was always less than the ideal it aspired to be, surrendered completely to greed, officiousness, commercial marketing, political correctness, and pusillanimity in the face of the herd mentality.
Novak Djokovic could have defended his title — other unvaccinated players were on the courts and they holed up safely in socially distanced quarters, and as best we know, the recent surge of COVID in Australia comes from sources outside the stadia at Melbourne Park.
But it was not to be. Well, it cannot be in anyone’s interest to forget this fiasco.
And still, it was superb tennis. In the men’s draw the winner lost the first two sets and fought back, topping off a personal comeback involving recovery from physical problems, notably a bone disease in the foot, which as late as December he thought might force his retirement.
Notwithstanding the bureaucratic-political fiasco, the truth is the majors are called majors for a reason. Roger Federer was out too, reportedly with lingering knee problems; so were Serena and Venus Williams. It was a great show just the same.
On the American side, Frances Tiafoe and Taylor Fritz were doing well through the first week, but two of our side’s young ladies, Madison Keys and Danielle Collins carried the old red white and blue almost all the way. They are tenacious competitors.
Miss Keys made it to the semi where she couldn’t do anything against world No. 1 Ashleigh Barty, whom the crowd hoped would bring a singles trophy home for the first time since the 1970s. Miss Barty handled Miss Keys’ strong baseline game with the brainy classicism for which she is known, typified by a backhand slice that evokes one of the greats of Australian tennis, Ken Rosewall, and a pin-point service that she uses with clutch brilliance.
Danielle Collins was another story. She powered her way through the draw, beating Poland’s great hope Iga Swiatek in a domineering two-setter to meet Miss Barty in the final. Whether due to the pressure having her country’s hopes on her shoulders, or because of Miss Collins’ relentless aggressive play, or both, Miss Barty had to change tactics and, basically, she abandoned her slice backhand-crosscourt forehand one-two combination for more aggression with her forehand drive, which meant she had to run around the balls more often to get into position.
She is fast and nimble and has unbelievable (forgive the cliché, as it is by definition believable since we saw it albeit on the screen) eye-arm function. And of course the pressure was on Miss Collins, too, who blew a 5-1 lead in the second when there was every indication she would be able to force a decider and maybe pull it out. Ash Barty came from behind and won a tiebreak without undue effort, having broken her rival’s defenses mental as well as tactical, and they were both gracious at the trophy ceremony.
As were the two best players in the men’s draw, fittingly ending it all with a five-set match that lasted 5 hours and 24 minutes, one of the longest in tournament history. It really looked like Daniil Medvedev, the tall (six-six) lanky fleet-footed Moscovite Karamazovian — I’ve mentioned this admittedly cliché comparison before, and after this tournament I am leaning toward a comparison with Dmitri — who has established himself firmly at the top of the rising generation: he is 25 to Nadal’s 35.
Age was not really the issue here, however. Medvedev is shorter on the experience and maturity they say you need to compete on the biggest stages but he has demonstrated an ability to withstand pressure. He gets annoyed with raucous crowds, and says so, urging umpires to demand they tone down the screaming and noise during play (not permitted in tennis), but he stays on his game as long as he can. In this case he faltered, but it was more physical than mental, five and a half hours of hitting as hard as possible.
Nadal proved stronger — more stamina and grit. At 35 you have as much or more than at 25, anyway, but Nadal had been sick with the dread virus and also was convalescing from a foot operation and back trouble. It was a remarkable feat to make it to the final, with among other exploits along the way a difficult five-setter against a member of Medvedev’s cohort, the talented but mercurial and hot-tempered Denis Shapovalov.
Medvedev too had a tough five setter, against Shapovalov’s compatriot Félix Auger-Alliassime, whom Nadal’s legendary uncle, Toni Nadal, came out of retirement to coach, so impressed was he by the potential he saw. On the exhaustion scale they could not say either had an advantage.
Medvedev played better in the first two sets but could not hang on to his great baseline form as Nadal found ways to disrupt it even as he reached deep inside his heart for the grit and muscle to win the next three: 2-6, 6-7, 6-4, 6-4, 7-5. In the crucial eleventh game of the last set, Medvedev saved two break points but could not repel the third; Nadal then held serve to love, rushing the net to put away a volley to close the last point.
Daniil Medvedev said he was disappointed by the crowd’s hostility, without for all that eschewing blame for losing. He knew he was outplayed in the last set especially, when he relied too much on his baseline strokes while the other man mixed things up and confused him. The stress was on him, and he said something about losing his joy in the game.
Even without direct contact with him, it is difficult to think such a bleak utterance can be more than a — Karamozovian? — mood swing, such is his talent. After an earlier round where he had come from behind, he stated that he asked himself “what would Novak [Djokovic] do,” and the answer was, “play each point with the aim of returning the last ball.” The attrition strategy works when it works, but if he now asks himself “what would Rafa do?” he will see that he also must find ways to “get to where you can hit the ball with the aim of putting it where the other guy can’t find it.”
Rafa Nadal, who often has referred to the suffering and pain that is required to compete at the elite level, was his usual courteous self after the match, upbeat tone shining through the modesty that sometimes rings a little false. He allowed as how the recovering injuries and illness he brought with him to Australia made this success a surprise. Yet when on court, he never once behaved as if anything but success was expected, perhaps especially when he was down in sets love to two. The man of Mallorca has unshakeable belief in his ability to win, and absolute distaste for losing.
With this win Rafa Nadal joins the restricted elite of players who have won each major at least twice. And with the most majors in history (21) he begins preparations for the time of year when he is called the king of clay.