21 and counting

February 6, 2022

Nadal has left behind Federer and Djokovic but many say the two could challenge him despite their injury issues

21 and counting

On January 30, at the Australian Open final, Spanish tennis legend Rafael Nadal (Rafa) finally did it. He won his grand slam number 21, and in doing so, broke a long-standing barrier of going past 20 grand slams. He bested his two great rivals, the Swiss maestro Roger Federer and the Serb champion Novak Djokovic, who have 20 majors each to their credit. But has Rafa become the greatest tennis player of all time or at least this era? The answer is yes, with the time caveat of another player overtaking his number of wins. Many believe it is Djokovic, while some fathom that Federer may have the final say.All three players are still on the circuit. While Nadal and Djokovic are in cracking form, Federer is recuperating from a nagging knee problem, and in the immediate future may not be expected to participate professionally.

The three greats have contrasting playing styles. Federer favours grass and has bagged a record 8 Wimbledon titles, the only major played on grass; Nadal has a knack for clay and his accomplishments include an unprecedented 13 French Open titles, the only clay court major; Djokovic prefers hard surfaces and has successfully outwitted his opponents at the Australian Open for a record 9 times. Their playing styles and surface preferences may differ, but their goals converge on a single point - winning the most slams and laying claim to the title of the greatest tennis player of all time.

While Nadal has succeeded in winning his 21st major, Federer and Djokovic have missed chances. To aggravate the hurt, they have both been denied that opportunity on their favourite surfaces and with the status of defending champions. Federer's chance went abegging when Djokovic beat him in the Wimbledon final in 2018. Djokovic was the fan's choice to do it in US Open 2021, but he uncharacteristically faltered in the final.

Where missed opportunities go, Djokovic has been the most unfortunate. He could have availed himself of two other chances. On both occasions, he was the top seed and on both, he was disallowed to contest for not complying with tournament rules. The first misfortune struck him at the US Open 2020, when he accidentally hit a line judge with the ball and was stopped by tournament organisers from competing further. He had another chance in the recently concluded Australian Open where he was the top seed and favourite, but was not allowed because of his refusal to disclose his Covid vaccination status.

The three greats have had their share of nagging fitness issues. Federer has been through a series of invasive treatments. He has had four knee surgeries, one on the left and three on the right. He did not play during much of the 2021 season and has missed the first major of 2022. But he believes that after successful knee rehabilitation, he will return to the circuit. However, one can argue that at 40, he is not as fit and strong as he was in his younger years.

Nadal has had his share of injuries which afflicted his foot, knee and back. At one point in 2021, Nadal's foot condition, Mueller-Weiss Syndrome, flared so much that he was seriously thinking about quitting tennis, but thanks to successful treatment, he is now free of pain. Djokovic had to part with the game for most of the 2018 season due to a sore elbow. After a successful surgery, his pain dissipated and he went back to his winning ways.

His 21st slam came as a surprise to many as he had been out of the circuit for 6 months prior to the tournament. Like a fighter and survivor, he beat an in-form and ten years younger Daniil Medvedev. But he cannot rest on his laurels as both Federer and Djokovic are hot on his heels.

Nadal has made his ambition clear of returning down under for the 2023 edition of the Australian Open. In between, there are three more grand slams, the first of which, the French Open, plays out at Roland Garros in less than four months. The tournament's unique clay is Nadal's favourite as he will be vying for his fourteenth title with an unprecedented passion.

Talking of passion, Djokovic will not have a short supply of it. But his admission to the French Open will depend on whether the tournament organisers allow him to contest without a Covid certificate. The French have a crystal clear stance on this - no jab, no entry. But between now and May, the policy may change.

With a slice of history, enormous prize money and lucrative sponsorship deals at stake, why is Djokovic so tenaciously against Covid vaccine? He argues that no one has the right to force a person to inject something that may be potentially harmful. But Djokovic should realise that all top tennis players have had the vaccine and are none the worse for it. His anti-vaccine dogmas could rob Djokovic of playing further professional tennis.


21 and counting