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NADAL ALWAYS WILL BE THE G.O.A.T. AS A HUMAN AND A COMPETITOR
Fighting miraculously through career-threatening injuries and COVID-19, he now has the most Grand Slam titles and, more importantly, the love and admiration of a world that rejects Djokovic
If we could make time stop, this is how the debate would end. Rafael Nadal would limp away from tennis not only as the better human being, which is indisputable in any comparison to Novak Djokovic, but also as the man with the most Grand Slam titles.
He drops his racket, covers his face and mouth, breaks into a smile, shakes his head as the crowd worships him, falls to his knees and shouts to the heavens, then closes his eyes as Rod Laver — whose name is on the arena — pulls out his cellphone and records the scene. “An absolute freak,’’ John McEnroe tells the TV audience as Nadal, not Djokovic or the regal Roger Federer, becomes the first to reach No. 21 past midnight at the Australian Open.
“Good evening. No, good morning!’’ says Nadal as he speaks to the crowd, beloved as ever, so essential in a changing sports tableau that sees Tom Brady retire, Tiger Woods wince and Djokovic prioritize quackery over health and legacy.
A spellbinding, three-pronged, two-decade competition unlike any in sports would conclude most fairly with Nadal as the all-time champion. He proved it during a fearless, audacious three weeks Down Under that separated him as the greatest while Djokovic was confirmed as the most selfish and foolish. In all likelihood, assuming the pandemic wanes and allows him to resume majors without political consequence, No-vaxx is still positioned at 34 to claim the most in the end. But if justice presides over our memory banks, we’ll always regard Nadal’s monumental triumph over his battered body, his tortured mind — and his knockdown fight with COVID-19 — as the defining moment in their drama.
As recently as the holiday season, he was prepared to retire from the sport and retreat to Mallorca. Always a slave to injuries — knees, ankles, feet, wrist, back — Nadal was convinced that the searing pain in his left foot, compounded by a rare disease, would send him home permanently. Then came his positive test for the coronavirus on Dec. 20, though he was vaccinated, forcing him to bed for four days. He is only a year older than Djokovic, but in tennis time, he suddenly seemed a decade older, with a once-thick head of hair now thinning.
“Physically destroyed,’’ he said of his state of mind, as he wondered why he was boarding a plane to Melbourne.
But when the subject is Rafael Nadal, we learned long ago that we are venturing into extraordinary, almost supernatural territory. What else would he do but battle through, after Djokovic warred with Australian authorities over his unvaccinated status, and snarl like an animal while outlasting every rival in the brackets with his trademark persistence, patience and panache? In a final that lasted five hours and 24 minutes, Nadal dropped the first two sets, then let 25-year-old Daniil Medvedev beat himself before delivering a victory speech at 1:30 a.m. He called it “the biggest comeback of my tennis career,’’ considering “the scenario, the momentum, what it means.’’
“For me, it’s just amazing,” Nadal told the awestruck Aussies from the court. “Being honest, one month and a half ago, I did not know if I will be able to be back on the tour playing tennis again, and today I am here in front of all of you having this trophy with me. You really don’t know how much I fought to be here. Without a doubt, (it’s) one of the most emotional months in my career.’’
And, by extension, the most reflective. “For me, it’s just a present of life that I am playing again,’’ he said. “I went through a lot of challenging moments, a lot of days of hard work without seeing a light there.’’
How does he do it? As he fought off break points in a fifth-set service game, Nadal barely could stand on his feet. “I just keep going. I am just enjoying playing tennis, as I’ve said hundreds of times. But honestly, and from the bottom of my heart, of course I want to keep winning, because I love what I am doing,’’ he said.
“To be able to be where I am today, I really can’t explain in words how important is for me in terms of energy, in terms of personal satisfaction, in terms of being very thankful. For me, it’s something completely unexpected. Of course, always with the competitive spirit that I have — I can’t go against that. It’s my personal DNA. In some way, I don’t know, just be what I am.’’
As mesmerized as the rest of us, Medvedev stared at Nadal afterward and said, “It was insane. You raised your level after two sets. I thought you were going to get tired — and maybe you did a little — but you’re an amazing champion.’’
Therein lies the difference at the top. Nadal plays for love of the game. Djokovic plays with a God complex, preoccupied with his anti-vaccine crusade to the point it could impact whether he’ll be similarly banned from draws at the French Open, Wimbledon and the U.S. Open. In a numbers game, he could fall two majors behind Nadal at Roland Garros, his temple of clay, where he has won 13 times. But just as some devotees of Jack Nicklaus still would consider him the golfing G.O.A.T. even if the polarizing Woods had passed him in career victories, the same reverence quotient applies to Nadal. They love him everywhere, as they admire Federer everywhere while he succumbs to age and injuries at 40. But you gather Djokovic could win 100 Slams and he still would be disparaged across the planet. Nadal, meanwhile, would remain the sentimental tennis G.O.A.T.
Making no secret of his disdain for the Djokovic fiasco, Nadal set a necessary tone early in a country weary of lockdowns. “The Australian Open is much more important than any player," he declared. "If he's not playing, the Australian Open will be a great Australian Open, with or without him. That's my point of view. … I believe in what the people who know about medicine say, and if they say we need to get vaccinated, we need to get the vaccine. If you do this, you don’t have any problem to play here. If you are vaccinated, you can play in the Australian Open and everywhere.”
When he lied at the Australian border and eventually was deported, Djokovic played directly into Nadal’s hands in the context of history. Less than five months ago, it appeared Djokovic would continue his dominance of the sport and take over the victory count for keeps. But his would-be coronation at the U.S. Open faltered in a loss to Medvedev, who isn’t exactly a prince himself. He ranted at a chair umpire during a semifinal victory while accusing Stefanos Tsitsipas’ father of illegal coaching from the stands: “Oh my god, you are so bad, man. Look at me! I’m talking to you! … If you don’t (give him a warning), you are — how can I say it — a small cat.” Sunday, he referred to the wildly pro-Nadal crowd as “idiots’’ in urging chair ump John Blom to quiet the noise. And to think the rude Russian, with a victory, would have vaulted over Djokovic as the world No. 1. The rankings remain the same, but Djokovic must crane his neck to see Nadal in the all-time standings. Not that Rafa ever would admit he’s half as consumed by the rivalry as the tennis community.
“I am super satisfied and feel like a very lucky person in general for all the things that happen to me in this life," he said. "You can't be always frustrated if (your) neighbor has a bigger house than you or a better phone or a better thing, no? I'm not going to be frustrated if Novak or Roger finishes the career with more Grand Slams than me. Let's enjoy the situation that every one of us (had). We did very special things in our sport. Let's enjoy that. Doesn't matter, the other thing.’’
What matters is the real thing: the human spirit. Someday, probably, a line in a record book will note that Novak Djokovic won more majors than anyone else. But Rafael Nadal, at a time when this world needs love and understanding, has won many more hearts.
Jay Mariotti, called “the most impacting Chicago sportswriter of the past quarter-century,’’ writes general sports columns for Substack while appearing on some of the 1,678,498 podcasts and shows in production today. He is an accomplished columnist, TV panelist and talk/podcast host. Living in Los Angeles, he gravitated by osmosis to film projects.