By the time I tuned in to the men’s final of the Australian Open, Daniil Medvedev and Rafael Nadal had already been going at it for three and a half hours. Another two hours later Nadal had completed a grinding comeback from two sets down to claim his 21st Grand Slam — the most for a man in the sport’s history, and one more than his arch-rivals Novak Djokovic and Roger Federer.
It wasn’t expected to end this way. The tournament began with Djokovic, the world number one and tournament favorite, being kicked out of Australia for trying to enter the country without a COVID vaccine, a decision that could haunt him in the months to come as other countries tighten their vaccination rules. There was also the sense that, after many years of domination by the Big Three, a younger generation was at long last beginning to assert itself. The New York Times earlier this week declared that “a new era has arrived” in the world of tennis, and wondered, “How much longer can the Nadal we have known be the Nadal we revere?”
Indeed, Nadal looked different today, his hair almost Trumpian in its weirdness, a smeared cloud that utterly failed to disguise that the man is quite bald. But his body appeared to be as indestructible as ever, all bouldered shoulders and pillared thighs, a superhero in a soaked fuchsia shirt. As he did the usual Nadal things — whipping that forehand over his head like a cowboy’s lasso, picking at the underwear that is always somehow a size too small — it was easy to imagine him stalking the court forever.
Medvedev, in comparison, barely looks like a tennis player: long and lanky with a sunken chest, like a stooped clerk out of Dickens. Except of course he can smack the ball to all corners of the court and scamper across its surface with the best of them. He is not the great heel of tennis — that would still be Djokovic, who may have faked a positive COVID-test result to claim natural immunity to get into Australia — but he did his best to make up for Djokovic’s absence, berating an umpire and calling him a “small cat” for not disciplining his semifinal opponent, Stefanos Tsitsipas, for allegedly receiving sideline instructions from his father. He would have been even more the villain if he had denied Nadal, the clear crowd favorite, his historic trophy.
For the time being, Medvedev and the rest of tennis’s rising generation continue to linger in the shadow of their elders and betters. It’s now on to the French Open, where Nadal will seek his 22nd Grand Slam, a result that would be both unprecedented and completely familiar. In the strange world of tennis, where time has its own laws, the more things change, the more they stay the same.