May 15, 2022 7:07 pm

Australian Open: how is the rivalry Nadal vs. Djokovic on the court and off it and what is expected for the future

Rafael Nadal he interrupted his calendar in August 2021 due to a treacherous injury to his left foot and did not officially compete again until last January 6, in Sydney, a 250 category tournament that he finally won. The Spaniard, owner of one of the most granite minds in the history of rackets, began the search, in the Australian Open, of his 21st Grand Slam title, more than 16 years after winning the first major (Roland Garros 2005).

With Roger Federer out of the game until who knows when and Novak Djokovic deported from Australia and involved in a global scandal based on his decision not to get vaccinated against Covid-19, today Nadal is the only active member of the Big 3. Between the Mallorcan and the Serbian they won 12 of the last 14 Grand Slam trophies (since Roland Garros 2018), with 2020 US Open champions Dominic Thiem and 2021 Daniil Medvedev the only “intruders”. Nole won eight major titles in this period, and Nadal four. They hold a duopoly that makes it highly probable that, taking into account the doubts generated by Federer’s future return (in August he will turn 41), they will put into play who will be the definitive tennis player, the one with the most individual majors. .

Djokovic and Nadal, protagonists of a strong rivalry on the court and off it, who experienced different moments of tension and cordiality.AP

Nadal, who began his journey through Melbourne Park defeating Marcos Girón (USA; 66th) 6-1, 6-4, 6-2 and in the second round will face the German qualifier Yannick Hanfmann (126th; local executioner Thanasi Kokkinakis), is no stranger to the scenario that Djokovic lives –and suffers–, who is already in Belgrade, after his Australian visa was canceled and he was deported. “It is very clear that Novak Djokovic is one of the best players in history, without a doubt. But there is no player in history that is more important than an event. Players stay and then they leave, and other players come. Nobody, including Roger; Novak; myself; Björn Borg, who was incredible at the time… Tennis continues. The Australian Open is much more important than any player”, Nadal sentenced a handful of hours before his debut at the AO 2022. And he expanded the message: “Honestly, I am quite tired of the situation because I think it is important to talk about our sport […] If there is any solution [para el coronavirus], and the solution is the vaccine, that’s it. we need to be vaccinated and the situation must be better for the well-being of all and for the health of our sport […] Really [a Djokovic] I respect him, although I do not agree with many things he has done in recent weeks.

Nadal reached the top of the ranking in August 2008 and built his career, in general terms, having fierce rivalries on the court but politically respectful off it. “Life is much better when you have a good relationship with everyone, especially in the locker room. That’s how it was throughout my tennis career, with some very casual exceptions for a few moments. That is my philosophy. It is better to have a good relationship with everyone because that way you are happier. With Novak it has not been an exception”, Nadal explained, after achieving his 70th victory in the Australian event that he only won in 2009.

Nadal and his gaze on the ball, in his triumphant debut at the Australian Open 2022: he beat Marcos Girón, from the United States, in three sets.
Nadal and his gaze on the ball, in his triumphant debut at the Australian Open 2022: he beat Marcos Girón, from the United States, in three sets.BRANDON MALONE – AFP

Of course, his relationship with the Balkan experienced tense moments that went beyond the geometry of the court. When Djokovic defeated Nadal in seven consecutive finals Between Indian Wells 2011 and the Australian Open 2012, something broke. Even the closest environment of the Matador came to mutter anger understanding that from the corner of the Serb there were excessive reactions in those days of revelry. Over time, both tennis legends grew closer and even shared charity actions for their foundations. But a certain mistrust continued to hover over the relationship, over and over again, with different positions.

For the Nadals, the appearance of Djokovic was a sporting problem (and later a kind of stone in the shoe) from early on. Toni himself, Rafa’s uncle, trainer and coach, admitted it and described it. An anecdote belongs to Wimbledon 2005. A few weeks earlier, Nadal had won the first of thirteen Roland Garros trophies. Toni, already at the All England, approached court number 18, where Juan Mónaco, Rafa’s friend and training partner, was competing. The man from Tandil faced a Serb who had passed the qualy and Toni barely had a few minutes of analysis to ask: “Who is that boy?”. “He is 18 years old and he is the hundred-odd in the world,” they replied. “What’s his name?” he insisted. “Novak Djokovic”, they replied.

A man takes a photo with Djokovic on the tennis player's arrival in Belgrade, after being deported from Australia.
A man takes a photo with Djokovic on the tennis player’s arrival in Belgrade, after being deported from Australia.Darko Bandic – AP

After seeing several points, Toni returned to the locker room where Rafa, then 3rd in the ranking, was preparing for his match against Frenchman Vincent Spadea. And when he saw his nephew, he released him, sincere: “Rafael, we have a problem. I’ve seen a very good guy.” They met for the first time in the quarterfinals of the 2006 French Open (the Spanish won 6-4, 6-4 and retired) and, since then, have built the rivalry that has the most chapters: 58, with thirty victories. of Nole.

At 35 years old and with several bruises on his body, Nadal is aware that he does not have much fuel left in the tank for the final race with Djokovic (and also with Federer, of course). For this reason, each test, each station acquires an extraordinary value. When can Djokovic return to the circuit? It is an unknown. For now, in the last few hours a door that seemed to have been released was closed. France toughened its policy on the entry of unvaccinated foreigners and Nole may also miss the next Roland Garros (he is the current champion). The vaccination pass differs from the sanitary pass, which accepts negative tests. In other words, if the current number 1 in the world arrived in Paris with a negative result in a PCR test, he was enabled to play. But not now.

In Australia, Rafael Nadal began the search for his 21st conquest of a Grand Slam tournament.
In Australia, Rafael Nadal began the search for his 21st conquest of a Grand Slam tournament.Simon Baker – AP

“Almost a week ago when [Djokovic] He won the case in the first instance, he was able to recover his visa and practice, I said that justice had spoken. If the court said that his visa was valid and he could play, the court spoke, then that was the fairest thing to do. Now the court said otherwise. I am not against what the court says.”, said Nadal, one of the most authoritative voices on the tour. And he stated, without hesitation: “I think the situation has been a disaster. He’s not the only one who probably got things wrong in this case. Of course, there are more responsible in this whole terrible situation that we have faced during the last two weeks. But, of course, he is also one of those responsible. So on a personal level, yes, I would like to see him play here. Whether or not it’s fair for me to play is another discussion, which I don’t want to talk about anymore.”

Djokovic navigates difficult waters and seems far from seeing a good port. The racket circuit was rocked in Melbourne. Nadal doesn’t want anything to distract him and keeps going.

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