The Djokovic question hovers over Nadal’s title, like it or not

Plenty of Novak Djokovic fans will say — entirely within reason — that their man would have won the 2022 Australian Open if he had been allowed to play. They will point to how vulnerable Rafael Nadal was in the quarterfinals against Denis Shapovalov, and again in the final versus Daniil Medvedev. When we realize how badly Medvedev played in sets 3 and 4, failing to close out Nadal, we can see a parallel with how Stefanos Tsitipas similarly faltered after taking a two-set lead over Djokovic in the Roland Garros final.

The younger guys don’t know how to close the deal against the older guys, Medvedev’s 2021 U.S. Open win over Djokovic being the exception which proves the rule. Djokovic certainly wouldn’t have blown a two-set lead over Rafa, had he been in Medvedev’s shoes on Sunday in Melbourne Park.

Djokovic fans have said this. They will continue to say it. Can you blame them? No. It’s out there. It’s natural. It’s entirely understandable. It’s the question which will never go away, not in relationship to this particular tournament, overshadowed as it was by COVID-19 politics and Australian immigration policy.

Djokovic fans have a legitimate set of grievances. What about Nadal fans? If you told them their man’s championship was tainted or less legitimate or cheapened, you would run into a firestorm of resistance.

Quite reasonably, I might add.

Nadal didn’t beat some third-rate chump in the final. He beat the man who beat Djokovic in New York last September. Nadal beat the one man other than Djokovic who had clearly established himself as an elite hardcourt player. Nadal outlasted an opponent who had himself outlasted Felix Auger-Aliassime in a quarterfinal which carried echoes of a Djokovic-and-Nadal-like refusal to accept defeat, even when it was very near.

If Nadal had beaten anyone other than Medvedev in the Australian Open final, the idea that the title was cheapened would have carried a lot more weight. Medvedev’s hardcourt prowess and specifically his win over Djokovic in a major final makes this discussion a LOT more complicated than people might think it is, or might wish it to be.

Ultimately, I think the best way to view this is to say that while a cloud was certainly cast over the tournament by Djokovic’s absence, you can’t say Nadal didn’t earn the title. Good lord, look at what he did and what he overcame, at age 35. You can’t say Nadal doesn’t deserve this. He sacrificed and suffered and persevered, just as he always has. You cannot take that away from him.

Yet, to give Djokovic fans their due, it’s impossible to ignore that Djokovic didn’t win a title not for tennis reasons, but for non-tennis reasons, much like the 2020 default at the U.S. Open.

Dominic Thiem earned and deserved that title; you can’t say he didn’t earn it. We can’t put the genie back in that bottle.

However, we can certainly note that a non-tennis turn of events influenced the outcome of that tournament. The winners of the 2020 U.S. Open and 2022 Australian Opens won every match and beat every opponent, but an outside event which had nothing to do with winning or losing a played point of tennis (a match point, to be more precise) certainly shaped the proceedings over the course of a fortnight.

We could have a food fight over this, with one fan base shouting how illegitimate the title was, and another fan base insisting how legitimate the championship is.

That’s a distraction.

The two things which count: Rafael Nadal and (from the 2020 U.S. Open) Dominic Thiem should savor their titles. No one should make them feel like lesser tennis players for pointing out the Djokovic questions attached to those two tournaments. That’s point one.

The much bigger point: If tennis players think Djokovic was wronged, they can’t just sit on the sidelines and complain about it. They need to talk to Djokovic and ask him what they can do to help him reform the sport, and more precisely, how tennis players can become a unified political and economic group, acting in mass numbers to represent professionals from the elites to the ATP Tour journeymen to the challenger players trying to break into the main ATP Tour.

Arguing about the legitimacy of Nadal’s title is a waste of time.

Having discussions about how to give tennis players a more unified voice, and tennis more cohesive and coherent leadership, remain the most productive discussions tennis fans can have.

Let’s hope it leads somewhere. A discussion of how legitimate Nadal’s title is? That won’t get us anywhere at all (at least nowhere good).

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