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Up next for Rafael Nadal? His specialty, the French Open.


Rafael Nadal after beating Daniil Medvedev on Sunday.

By Christopher Clarey


After Rafael Nadal’s stupendous comeback in the Australian Open final Sunday night, it is he — not Novak Djokovic or Roger Federer — who is the first man to win 21 Grand Slam singles titles.


Fairly or unfairly, it is the tennis record that matters most these days. Although Sunday’s outcome hardly ends the debate about who is the greatest men’s player of all time (don’t forget Rod Laver), there is no doubt that Nadal is the greatest men’s clay-court player of all time.


The French Open, which is played on red clay in Paris, begins May 22. Nadal, 35, has won it 13 times, dominating as no man has dominated any major tennis tournament.


It would be no surprise if Nadal struck quickly for Grand Slam singles title No. 22, particularly if Djokovic, the only man to beat him twice at Roland Garros, is unable to play in this year’s French Open because he remains unvaccinated against the coronavirus.


Djokovic, who is still No. 1, was deported from Australia on Jan. 16, on the eve of the Australian Open, after his visa was revoked. For now, his chances of competing in Paris are unclear.


The French government is banning athletes, both French and foreign, from accessing sports venues or taking part in events if they do not have a vaccination pass. But unvaccinated individuals can still hold a valid pass if they have had a recent coronavirus infection.


For now, the exemption from vaccination is six months from the date of infection, but on Feb. 15, the grace period will be reduced to four months. That would mean Djokovic, who has presented evidence that he tested positive in Serbia on Dec. 16, would be eligible to compete in France until late April without being vaccinated.


But the French government could change the rules on vaccination passes if case numbers or hospitalizations drop by the spring. The outcome of the French presidential election in April could also affect health policy, and there is the possibility, however remote, that French Open organizers could negotiate an exemption or extension of the grace period for unvaccinated players, even though there are hardly an overwhelming number of unvaccinated tour-level players at this stage.


It seems too early to rule Djokovic, 34, out of Roland Garros, where he won the title last year. He beat Nadal there in a semifinal that peaked in a bravura third set before Nadal faded, in part because of the chronic foot pain that forced him to miss most of the rest of the season, including Wimbledon, the Olympics and the U.S. Open.


“Look, if Novak does return, I think we’re talking about Rafa and Novak going into the French as the co-favorites,” said Darren Cahill, ESPN analyst and leading coach. “Obviously, you’ve got to be able to beat Rafa over five sets on clay, and we’ve seen how difficult that’s been, but Novak has been pretty damn impressive there the last few years.”


For now, Djokovic is short on match play in 2022 after watching the Australian Open from afar (and sending a congratulatory message to Nadal, who was supposed to be in Djokovic’s section of the draw).


Djokovic is entered and expected to play in the ATP tournament in Dubai that begins Feb. 21. But if he remains unvaccinated, he would require an exemption to fly to the United States to compete in March in the BNP Paribas Open in Indian Wells, California and in the Miami Open. A prior coronavirus infection is not grounds for an exemption, but individuals with “documented medical contraindications” to receiving the vaccine can be granted one.


Daniil Medvedev, who is ranked No. 2, was poised to become the top hardcourt player. He had already beaten Djokovic in last year’s U.S. Open final, a loss that prevented Djokovic from completing the Grand Slam.


But Nadal’s victory, surprising and stirring, could open up new perspectives for Djokovic and Federer, who is 40 but training for the possibility of returning later this year, perhaps in time for Wimbledon, after another knee surgery in 2021. It is difficult to see Federer as a title favorite anywhere, but why not as a factor on grass or hardcourts?


“I think what Rafa did can put a little fuel in Roger’s tank, too,” Cahill said. “Roger could say, ‘If Rafa is out there still doing it, why can’t I do it if I get healthy and still have that love of the game?’ So, I think this energizes the Big Three.”


Nadal should feel energized once he recovers from his reaffirming run down under. He was walking gingerly Monday as he posed for photos with the Norman Brookes Challenge Cup in a Melbourne park after not getting to sleep until 5 a.m. that day.


A rout would not have felt right against Medvedev, considering how much Nadal relishes a good fight. He has talked about the joy in “suffering.” When he won his first Australian Open in five sets in 2009, he, in his still-evolving English, told a small group of us the next day: “Maybe I like more fighting to win than to win.”


That phrase still rang true 13 years later as Nadal escaped from big tennis trouble. Although Nadal has done prodigious things in his years on this earth (and clay), he had never rallied from a two-set deficit to win a Grand Slam title.


His 5-hour-and-24-minute triumph over Medvedev was one of Nadal’s trademark victories, up there with his defeat of Federer in the 2008 Wimbledon final that is on every short list of the greatest matches.


Nadal confirmed that the post-match emotions were more powerful at his age. Medvedev might take note. He was so deflated by losing his lead and hearing the crowd cheer his errors — and roar for Nadal — that he said he was disillusioned with the sport and might not play past age 30.


“The kid that was dreaming is not anymore in me after today,” Medvedev said. “It will be tougher to continue tennis when it’s like this.”


Yevgeny Kafelnikov, the first Russian man to win a major singles title, said Medvedev “will get over it in 10 days” as the disappointment fades.


Nadal has not only won 13 French Opens — a record that may never be broken — he has also won four U.S. Opens, two Wimbledons, two Olympic gold medals (one singles, one doubles), five Davis Cups and scores of other titles.


But Sunday’s triumph was especially savory because it seemed so unlikely a few weeks earlier. Nadal’s foot condition, which had been slow to improve even after he had surgery on Sept. 11, had left him feeling powerless.


Nadal said his condition, which affects a small bone in his foot, will never be entirely resolved, but he said it did not bother him in Melbourne as he chased down Medvedev’s drop shots and smacked forehand winners on the sprint.


“His tennis IQ is off the charts,” his coach, Carlos Moyá, told L’Équipe, a French newspaper. “I don’t know if he’s the best player in the world, but he reads the game better than them all.”


When an increasingly weary Medvedev began trying to shorten points with drop shots and unusually risky tactics, the message was not lost on Nadal.


“I think that gave Rafa a lot of energy,’” Cahill said. “Just hang in there and keep pushing and pushing. You never know what’s going to happen.”


Well, we know now, and it was extraordinary.

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