Rafael Nadal’s triumph is astounding but Novak Djokovic’s absence casts an inescapable shadow

But Nadal’s advance into uncharted territory for the men’s game demands that we examine this moment not as pure theatre, but as pure sport. After all, it is one of sport’s immutable truths that to be the best, you have to beat the best, a requirement that in Nadal’s case leaves the faintest of asterisks against this final. While he drew upon quite staggering reserves of resilience to vanquish Daniil Medvedev, the Russian was not the best player he could have faced in this draw. He was simply the best fully fit vaccinated player. The greatest danger to Nadal’s chances of this 21st championship was, as everybody knows, sitting 9,500 miles away in Belgrade.

Medvedev, as he proved in abundance on Rod Laver Arena, is nobody’s pushover. His ability to survive even the most gruelling rallies, including one in the second set that stretched to 40 shots, extended Nadal to levels of stamina perhaps not even he knew he possessed. But the fact remains that on the blue Plexicushion of Melbourne Park, Medvedev is not a threat on the scale of Djokovic – not even close. Only 11 months ago, at a pandemic-delayed tournament, he was blown away by the Serb in straight sets, winning just nine games. Of the 12 Australian Opens staged since Nadal won his first in 2009, Djokovic had won eight of them.

That is what makes Nadal’s accomplishment so distinct from his triumph in the Wimbledon twilight in 2008. On that occasion, he was dethroning the undisputed No 1 – then Roger Federer – the All England Club’s reigning five-time champion. This time, the No 1 is nowhere to be seen. Not that most will care: the consensus within some quarters of tennis is that Djokovic is a dangerous anti-vaxxer who fully deserves his pariah status. But when you are talking about the race to be established as the greatest male player who has ever lived, such judgments are as mawkish as they are trite. This era in men’s tennis is, and always was, about three players. And when one of them is sidelined solely because of a personal medical choice, that is a problem.

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