One Way Or Another, Tennis History Will Be Made at the Australian Open

Daniil Medvedev in action at the Australian Open.
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Before the 2022 Australian Open began, two men had a chance of making tennis history, as both Novak Djokovic and Rafael Nadal were bidding for a remarkable 21st Major victory to break their three-way tie with Roger Federer on 20 Grand Slam Singles titles. Now, even though Djokovic was barred from playing in Melbourne because of his vaccination status (or lack thereof), two men still still have a chance of making tennis history, albeit of a slightly different kind. In the men’s final on Sunday, either Nadal will become officially and statistically the most successful male player ever or Daniil Medvedev will become the first man in the Open Era to win his first two Majors back to back.

Rafa – 21 (Again)?

After edging past Denis Shapovalov in their five-set quarterfinal earlier in the week, which was fought out in the searing Melbourne heat, Nadal joked about his “not being 21” any longer and therefore requiring all of the two-day break before the semifinal against Matteo Berrettini to recover. Now of course, having made the most of that extended period of rest (which is unique at the Majors) to beat the Italian in four sets, he has a chance to be 21 again – if not in age, then in the number of Grand Slam titles that he has won.

It is astonishing to consider that the total for the most Majors won by a male tennis player has nearly doubled in the last 20 years, from Pete Sampras winning the 2000 Wimbledon title to break his own two-way tie with Australia’s Roy Emerson on 12 to Nadal possibly winning a 21st Major Singles title on Sunday. Perhaps more than any other statistic, that is a testament to the truly historic achievements of “The Big Three” – “The Gigantic Three” would be more accurate – as they have collectively driven each other on to heights that were almost unimaginable less than a generation ago.

If Nadal wins a 21st Major at the Australian Open, there will be some (mainly FedHeds or Novakians, i.e the most fanatical fans of the other two members of The Big Three) who will claim that it does not prove that he is the Greatest Of All Time, or GOAT, in tennis. They will base their argument on the fact that 13 of those titles, or more than 60% of them, were won on the clay of Roland Garros, claiming that statistic proves that Nadal is really a clay-court specialist who has won less than half his other Major titles on other surfaces. Therefore, their argument will go, Federer and/or Djokovic, whose 20 Major titles are more evenly divided between all four Majors, will remain the greater all-round tennis players.

However, the reverse can also be argued, namely that if Nadal wins this weekend he will have proven that he is not just a clay-court specialist by winning so many other Majors on surfaces other than clay. If he triumphs in Melbourne, he will have won a remarkable eight Majors on non-clay surfaces, with at least two wins at the three Majors outside France, a feat that only Djokovic has matched. (Federer’s lone French title came in 2009, and only after Nadal had been eliminated by someone else – Sweden’s Robin Soderling – rather than by Federer himself.)

Ultimately, though, if Nadal wins this weekend, such arguments will be redundant, at least until Djokovic wins a 21st Major. (Sadly, Federer must surely now be ruled out of that particular race, after two years of persistent injury problems at the end of an otherwise largely injury-free career.) He will have the cold, hard statistic of 21 Grand Slam Singles titles to prove that he is the greatest male tennis player of all time.

Or Daniil Back To Back?

Of course, Nadal winning a 21st Major at the Australian Open is anything but a done deal, given that he will be facing Daniil Medvedev in the final, another man chasing his own slice of tennis history. If Medvedev wins on Sunday, he will become the first man in the Open Era (since 1968, when tennis finally and belatedly became a fully professional sport) to win his first two Major titles back to back. Naomi Osaka has achieved it in the women’s game, winning in Melbourne in 2019 to back up her maiden Major victory in New York in 2018, but incredibly no man – not even one of The Big Three – has achieved that in the men’s game.

If any man is capable of doing it, it is surely Medvedev, and for a number of reasons. Firstly, he has already proved himself to be perhaps the ultimate “streaky” player in the modern game (at least outside The Big Three), because when he gets on a roll and really finds his rhythm he appears almost unstoppable, even from tournament to tournament. That was initially evident in his breakthrough season of 2019, when he reached a succession of finals on the North American hard-court circuit, culminating in his first appearance in a Major final, at the 2019 US Open.

Then, he only narrowly lost to Nadal after coming back from two sets down to take the match into a fifth and decisive set. Given that Medvedev is undoubtedly a far better player now than he was in 2019, especially after winning his first Major in New York last September, his fans (and there are many, despite his own self-professed love of being the bad guy or villain on court) will have great faith that he can win a second successive Major. And that faith will only have grown after he comprehensively defeated Stefanos Tsitsipas in a second successive Australian Open semifinal.

In addition to becoming the first man in the Open Era to win his first two Majors back to back, Medvedev would achieve another historic feat on Sunday if he can beat Nadal, and one that is arguably even more impressive than “merely” winning his first two Majors in swift succession. He would become the first man to beat one of The Big Three in successive Major finals, first denying Djokovic a 21st Major (and Calendar Grand Slam) in New York and then doing the same against Nadal in Melbourne. If he can deny both men a 21st Major, he will surely be the ultimate party-pooper.

The verdict?

So, the 2022 Australian Open men’s singles final will be genuinely historic, whoever wins it. Perhaps the most important aspect of that is that it might just allow the tournament and particularly the men’s singles event to be remembered for something other than “No-Vax’s” no-show.

As a tennis historian, I naturally prefer (like most historians of any kind) to judge events after they have happened rather than before, but on this occasion I will go for Medvedev to win – just. In defeating both Felix Auger-Aliassime and Stefanos Tsitsipas in succession and so impressively, he will be battle-hardened for the final. Of course, he will need to be, given that he will be facing probably the most insanely competitive male player in tennis history.

However, whether Medvedev or Nadal wins, history will be made. And tennis will show once again that even a sport that is nearly a thousand years old (the earliest form of the game is believed to have been played in French monasteries in the 12th century AD/CE) can continue to break new ground.

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