How Rafael Nadal, Ash Barty et al electrified the 2022 Australian Open - at a time when tennis needed it most
"Tennis prevails, tennis brings joy to people." From the singles wins for Rafael Nadal and Ashleigh Barty to doubles success for Nick Kyrgios and Thanasi Kokkinakis, the 2022 Australian Open could not have been scripted any better, delivering the perfect tonic after the off-court drama involving Novak Djokovic.
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"My favourite story of the tournament is that tennis prevails,” said Eurosport expert Alex Corretja, who was overcome with emotion as his compatriot Nadal secured a heroic and historic 21st Grand Slam title.
"Tennis brings joy to people. It brings a lot of emotions and feelings and intensity. Players need to suffer and get through difficult moments and find solutions. The matches are long and can go back and forth, and you need to hang in there and work so hard.
"This is the most important thing: that they are enjoying the tournament so much. This is a very unique sport and we are very grateful to be part of it."
Tennis needed this.
A tournament so mesmerising, so captivating, full of so many incredible moments, that it now seems easy to separate the first half of January with the second half. For tournament director Craig Tiley and everyone else involved with the Australian Open the last two weeks could not have been scripted better, and not just with the eventual champions, although in Nadal and Ash Barty there could not have been two more popular singles winners.
His victory in Melbourne has reignited the GOAT race, moving him one major ahead of Djokovic and Roger Federer in the all-time standings. At 40, and recovering from knee surgeries, it seems doubtful that Federer will add to his tally. But Nadal is not only firmly in the race again, he leads it.
"I have no doubt that for Rafa this is an unbelievable motivation for the present and for the future," said Corretja on the three-way battle for Slam supremacy.
"I still see it as very open. I think hopefully Novak will be at Roland Garros because tennis needs him. It's very important for our sport. It's very important to have this rivalry."
Meanwhile, seven-time major champion Justine Henin admits that she finds it "impossible" to compare Nadal, Djokovic and Federer.
"I pay less attention to this debate and this race than many people do but I obviously understand the hype," she said.
"Personally, I don't like to compare them because for me it's impossible... because they are very different. They have brought very different things to tennis.
"It's the passion that continues to drive them. I think the debate is more about how much longer this passion will drive them? We are at an almost tipping point. What they have done together is phenomenal."
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Two-time French Open finalist Corretja also thinks Nadal underlined that he is the "toughest and strongest" player around after roaring back from two sets down to stun Medvedev in a marathon that stretched five hours and 24 minutes.
"I believe that he never has downs. He always fights hard, he always raises his level higher," continued Corretja.
"I think that Rafa has been showing through his whole career that mentally he is probably the toughest one because he has been through so many different situations. And on the court, he is fighting so hard all the time and that's why I really considered him as the strongest one."
The strongest, and the undisputed greatest, at least for now?
Perhaps. But John McEnroe believes that the pressure on Nadal in Melbourne is not remotely comparable to what Djokovic faced during the US Open last year, when he was not only shooting for Slam No. 21, but also the Calendar Slam.
When put on the spot to say if Nadal was the strongest mentally of the 'Big Three', seven-time major champion McEnroe told Eurosport: "That's a little bit difficult to say. I think Novak was in a different circumstance: he was trying to do something that hadn't been done for 52 years. And he was a little bit fatigued from the amount of tennis he had played and that caught up with him and the pressure of the moment.
"I don't think the expectations for Nadal were the same going into this term and not even close to when Novak went into the US Open. In a way everything that went on before the tournament with Novak allowed Rafa to sort of just do his thing and there wasn't a lot of talk about him, it wasn't until the second week [that the expectation arrived]."
Spanish commentators overcome with emotion as Nadal wins match point
'Never write off these great champions' - Henman
Even when Djokovic was on the plane back to Serbia, Nadal’s chances of winning the Australian Open looked slim.
His hard-court form over the last few years has been patchy and with a lack of match practice, and wear and tear on his body, it was difficult to imagine that he would improve on his quarter-final appearance in 2021.
Indeed, with expectations so low it seemed doubtful at one point that he would even travel to Australia after testing positive for Covid-19 at the start of the year.
"The standout moment for me has to be Nadal winning," said Eurosport analyst Tim Henman.
"The circumstances around it. The uncertainty having not played coming into the Australian summer, winning the first tournament of the year and coming in under the radar.
"There was a lot of talk about Djokovic and not much talk about Rafa but to get all the way to the final and to be down two sets to love against probably the best hard court player in the world, it’s an incredible achievement,"
"We should never write off these great champions. It was a pleasure and a privilege to watch him win his 21st Grand Slam title."
Watch historic moment Nadal wins Australian Open and claims 21st Grand Slam title
It is an incredible testament to him that he not only decided to play the tournament, but did so in such good shape that he was able to win two high-intensity five-set matches against Denis Shapovalov and Medvedev in the last week of the tournament.
“I cannot believe he got himself there and took us all along on this unbelievable emotional journey,” seven-time Grand Slam champion Mats Wilander told Eurosport.
“We knew how exceptional he was in terms of fighting spirit, passion, the heart he puts out there, but he took it to another level,” added presenter Alize Lim.
“This was beyond tennis. He is just not human. It’s one of the most emotional moments I have seen in tennis.”
Nadal’s triumph over Medvedev was a win for the ages and a match that will live long in the memory.
Perhaps just as important as the Nadal-Djokovic rivalry is the emergence of an exciting Next Gen. While there were no real breakthrough moments in Melbourne there were more signs that the status quo is shifting.
Jannik Sinner was impressive until being swept aside by Tsitsipas, Carlos Alcaraz took Matteo Berrettini to five sets in a gripping match, and Canadians Felix Auger-Aliassime and Shapovalov both pushed finalists Nadal and Medvedev to five sets. It surely won't be long before there are more first-time major winners.
The Barty Party
'She's going to take women's game to next level' - Wilander on Barty winning Australian Open
Barty’s third Grand Slam title was much less of a shock than Nadal's stunning win given her impressive form over the last 12 months, but that didn’t make it any less special, especially not for the record TV crowd in Australia that tuned in to watch a first home champion in Melbourne in 44 years.
It was reported that a peak of 4.2 million people watched Barty’s victory over Danielle Collins, and an average of 3.6 million. That made it the most watched women’s singles final in the country since records began in 1999, and the peak audience would have been the highest for any event in 2021 apart from the AFL Grand Final.
Barty is a hugely-popular champion. Her modest and kind-hearted personality has not only earned her the love of the Australian public but also her fellow professionals, all of whom had only kind words to say about Barty over the last two weeks. It was fitting that Barty was presented the Daphne Akhurst Memorial Cup by Evvone Goolagong, having described herself during the tournament as a “very proud Indigenous woman”. Goolagong, herself an Indigenous woman, was the first Australian woman to reach world No. 1 and finished her career with seven Slam singles titles, including four at the Australian Open.
After winning her third Slam title without dropping a set, it does not seem impossible that Barty, 25, will come close to Goolagong’s total. And, having lost in the latter stages of the Australian Open for the last three years, this could be a win that paves the way for even more success for Barty.
Top 5 shots from Australian Open champion Barty in triumphant run
Kyrgios and Kokkinakis thrilled fans in Melbourne with their entertaining play and on-court antics. They also wound up opponents, including Purcell, who Kyrgios labelled a “donut”, and Michael Venus, who labelled Kyrgios an “absolute k***” after losing in the semi-finals. Whether they overstepped the mark on a few occasions is open to debate, but they certainly helped bring the tournament to life.
“I would say that we’ve created probably the best atmosphere this tournament has ever seen,” was Kyrgios’ verdict.
The question for both Kyrgios and Kokkinakis now is whether they can use their doubles win as a springboard for singles success. Both are immensely talented and should be competing at the top of the singles game. If Kyrgios can stay motivated and Kokkinakis can stay healthy they could provide Australia with even more occasions to celebrate.
Alcott emotional following text from Murray after retirement
While Kyrgios and Kokkinakis have most of their careers still in front of them, Dylan Alcott called time on his incredible career after the Australian Open. Alcott, who won 23 Grand Slam quad wheelchair titles including 15 in singles, Paralympic gold medals and a Golden Slam, lost his last match 7-5 6-0 to Sam Schroder in the men's singles final.
It wasn’t the dream ending for Alcott, who earlier in the week was named Australian of the Year, but he still bows out a winner. He has been an incredible champion and inspiration for so many and the high regard he is held in was shown by the message of support he received from Andy Murray during his post-match press conference which caused him to well up.
Perhaps the most significant winner from the last two weeks though is tennis.
If everything that happened with Djokovic was widely agreed not to be a good look for the sport, the Australian Open was tennis showing its best side, flaunting all its qualities and serving up a reminder that no player is bigger than the sport.
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