So the Australian Open ended with Novak Djokovic the winner. Yet for all the magnificent tennis the Melbourne tournament had a certain Nadal-shaped hole in it.
Andre Agassi last week confirmed what we’re all thinking, that Federer, Djokovic and Nadal are the best players ever and we’re witnessing a golden era of men’s tennis. Murray is definitely up there amongst them and capable of competing after his breakthrough year, but time will tell whether he can walk with the big three in the long term.
Such are the three so interlinked in beating each other and raising each other’s games that a major without one of them seems somehow devalued. Yet for all Federer’s imperiousness, and Djokovic’s relentlessness, it is the peerless artistry of Rafael Nadal that you miss the most.
When Federer was the king of world tennis it was Nadal who chased him down. Number two in the world for what seemed like an eternity the doggedness with which he pursued the Swiss won out in the end. Nadal lost to Federer so many times, but he always came back stronger, more determined, like a snarling wolf he wore down his bigger prey and earned the right to the number one spot in the game.
Federer has since regrouped and Djokovic embarked on a period of sporting grace that saw him untouchable for almost a year. Their collective success speaks for itself; Federer with a record 17 major titles, Nadal with 11, Djokovic with 6 and now Murray with 1. That places, for the moment, the Serb at the head of the ATP rankings and the Swiss at the top of the titles list, but his loss the Murray in the Semi-final in Melbourne could suggest his second reign may be over. It is tempting to suggest that both Federer’s renaissance and Murray’s raise have been facilitated by Nadal’s injuries and absence from the game.
Operations on both knees meant Nadal could not defend his Olympic title in London last year, Murray took the gold and that proved the psychological fillip he needed to go on and secure his first title at last year’s US Open. Nadal was, for sure, the rightful heir to Federer’s crown but somehow the coronation never occurred.
Out since Wimbledon last year and with surgery on his knees the world will be watching when he returns to action for the French Open when it starts Sunday May 26. The Spaniard is only 26 years old and Federer’s record of 17 slams is very much in his sights. The dynamic of the top four players will shift significantly with his return, as will the quality of the tennis, and it’s entertainment level.