Nadal, Djokovic and how character shaped the plot of the Australian Open

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Spain's Rafael Nadal poses with the Norman Brookes Challenge Cup trophy following his victory against Russia's Daniil Medvedev in their men's singles final match on day fourteen of the Australian Open tennis tournament in Melbourne on January 31, 2022. - -- IMAGE RESTRICTED TO EDITORIAL USE - STRICTLY NO COMMERCIAL USE -- (Photo by BRANDON MALONE / AFP) / -- IMAGE RESTRICTED TO EDITORIAL USE - STRICTLY NO COMMERCIAL USE -- (Photo by BRANDON MALONE/AFP via Getty Images)
Spain's Rafael Nadal poses with the Norman Brookes Challenge Cup trophy following his victory against Russia's Daniil Medvedev in their men's singles final match at the Australian Open in Melbourne. (Brandon Malone / AFP via Getty Images)

For those partial to happy endings, the world of professional sports is notoriously strewn with heartbreak. Competition isn’t the place to seek poetic justice. Villains often prosper in the heat of battle, and heroes can come up short even with an entire stadium on their side.

At a time when athletes seem to relish their antihero role, exploiting their celebrity for special favor, sounding off on controversial subjects they know little about and acting as though they’re bigger than the sport that made them famous in the first place, the Australian Open showed just how satisfying it can be when role models like Rafael Nadal and Ashleigh Barty triumph.

This was not the expected script for a tournament that made international headlines before the first ball was even struck. Novak Djokovic found himself embroiled in a bureaucratic and public relations nightmare when his visa was canceled upon his arrival in Australia, then reinstated, then canceled again by the country’s immigration minister. Djokovic, who is unvaccinated for COVID-19, had obtained a medical exemption to enter Australia to play the tournament. But the exception that was granted provoked a political firestorm after Djokovic posted about his travel plans on Instagram. An outraged public that had endured months of lockdown couldn’t understand why strict rules were being suddenly bent for a preening athlete.

Ashleigh Barty shouts in triumph
Ashleigh Barty of Australia celebrates match point in her Women's Singles Final match against Danielle Collins of United States during day 13 of the 2022 Australian Open. (Clive Brunskill / Getty Images)
Ashleigh Barty holds the 2022 Australian Open winner's trophy
Australia's Ashleigh Barty poses with the 2022 Australian Open winner's trophy in Melbourne. (Martin Keep / AFP via Getty Images)

Djokovic is no Aaron Rodgers. He’s not engaged in partisan mudslinging and has mostly kept his opposition to COVID-19 vaccines to himself. But he has let his pseudo-scientific views be known and, worse, he has acted irresponsibly during the pandemic, holding a charity tournament in 2020 that became a super-spreader event, breaking quarantine protocol when he was reputedly COVID-positive in December and providing inaccurate information about his travel history on his Australian visa application.

News reports have questioned the timing of Djokovic’s COVID-19 test, the source of his medical exemption. How much damage has been done to his reputation remains to be seen, but I'm sure I'm not the only one wondering to what lengths might he have gone to win another Australian Open and assume the mantle of Greatest of All Time?

That question was rendered moot on Sunday, as Rafael Nadal, who began his career in Roger Federer’s shadow and has watched Djokovic become the undisputed No. 1 player in the world, did the impossible. Down two sets to love against the Russian ball machine Daniil Medvedev in the final, the Spaniard dug himself a hardcourt trench and refused to give up further ground, winning the next three sets and taking the title, his second Australian Open crown.

The victory was Nadal’s 21st Grand Slam singles title, breaking the record he shared with Federer and Djokovic, both of whom have their own claim to being the GOAT. That debate hasn’t been quashed by Nadal taking this momentary advantage. There are three more Grand Slams this year, and though a hobbled 40-year-old Federer’s best days are likely behind him, Djokovic was in rare form last year, nearly winning all four Slams, something that hasn’t been done on the men’s side since Rod Laver pulled it off in 1969.

It was Medvedev who beat Djokovic in the U.S. Open men’s final last year, eagerly playing the spoiler, a role that comes naturally to this 6-foot-6 human backboard with a sly wit. Clever on and off the court, Medvedev enjoys psyching out his opponents not only with his combination of impenetrable defense and sneaky offense but with his needling comments.

In a fourth-round match against up-and-coming Maxime Cressy, a server and volley specialist who won the NCAA doubles title when playing for the UCLA Bruins, Medvedev vented his frustration at his opponent’s “boring” style of play and attributed some of Cressy’s success to pure “luck.” Against Stefanos Tsitsipas in the semifinals, Medvedev lambasted the chair umpire for giving him a warning while not doing anything about the illegal coaching Tsitsipas was apparently receiving from his father, a chronic problem. Medvedev's screaming fit culminated in the epithet “small cat,” presumably to avoid the fine that would have been levied had he not found an indirect way of phrasing his insult.

Medvedev has become tennis’ version of the internet troll. He gives sportswriters good material, but you wouldn’t want your kid to copy his smirk. It was no surprise that the crowd at Rod Laver Arena would be overwhelmingly on Nadal’s side, yet Medvedev seemed thrown by the antipathy.

He repeatedly entreated the chair umpire to tell the crowd not to erupt in jubilation when he missed a first serve. He mocked the crowd’s applause at his unforced errors. (Pro tip: Making dismissive hand gestures to a packed stadium isn’t the best way to win friends and influence people.) He was within touching distance of the trophy, but the villainous temperament he has cultivated as a weapon worked against him: He was fighting not just an indefatigable and beloved Nadal but also a disaffected nation.

Rafael Nadal kneels on the tennis court after his win
Spain's Rafael Nadal reacts after winning against Russia's Daniil Medvedev during their men's singles final match on day 14 of the Australian Open tennis tournament in Melbourne. (Brandon Malone / AFP via Getty Images)
Rafael Nadal raises his arm in victory
Rafael Nadal celebrates winning a point during the Australia open. (Hamish Blair / Associated Press)

Australia takes its sporting values seriously, which is why Barty’s hard-fought win over an impressive American Danielle Collins on Saturday was greeted with national jubilation. The humblest of champions who’s quick to credit her opponent in victory or defeat, Barty became the first Australian women’s single titleholder since Chris O’Neil in 1978. The trophy ceremony was made all the sweeter by the presence of Evonne Goolagong, a fellow Australian of Indigenous background who has inspired Barty to embrace her roots as she takes her place in her country’s storied tennis tradition.

Barty has long left the spotlight to other players. She hasn’t been a magnet for endorsement deals. When she took a break from the game for similar reasons to Naomi Osaka, she didn't become the subject of endless profiles, op-eds and social media dissection. Fashion magazines haven’t taken much notice.

With a gracious sense of fair play that is as much of a throwback as her all-court game, Barty proves that it is possible to be good and still be great. Stardom is inevitable when you win the French Open, Wimbledon and now the Australian Open. But no matter how many Grand Slams she racks up, her legacy will be inseparable from her exemplary sportsmanship.

Unlike Djokovic, who has been on a fanatical mission to conquer tennis history, Nadal has made clear that his happiness isn’t determined by how many Grand Slams he has. "You can't be frustrated all the time because the neighbor has a bigger house than you. … That's not the way that I see the life,” he has said in a variety of ways in his always charming English.

Ever the philosopher in press conferences, Nadal, who wasn't sure if he'd be returning to the tour after suffering a career-threatening foot injury last season, isn’t afraid to tell you what he thinks. When asked about Djokovic’s travails with the immigration authorities, he expressed sympathy for his rival’s plight but noted, “He knew the conditions since a lot of months ago, so he makes his own decision." Regarding vaccines, Nadal was more direct: "I believe in what the people who know about medicine say, and if the people say that we need to get vaccinated, we need to get the vaccine."

In a world in which politics and celebrity have become so debased, where winning often seems like the only thing that matters, it’s a stirring sight when athletes flip the moral script. When asked after his win for the keys to his success, Nadal pondered a moment before replying, “Love for the game, passion, positive attitude, and working spirit. … And the right people next to me, helping every single day.”

Character, for all the right reasons, was destiny at this year's Australian Open.

This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.