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Why the Novak Djokovic-Rafael Nadal Rivalry Is Truly Special

To witness the same two players display this level of excellence for well over a decade without a significant dip in their levels defies all wisdom we have learned about the inherent nature of sport.

Novak Djokovic and Rafael Nadal faced each other in the 2012 Australian Open final. The almost six-hour-long battle of attrition where Djokovic eventually triumphed by the barest of margins is widely considered to be the greatest match of the Open Era. Both were the top ranked players in the world at the time and the sheer quality of tennis on exhibition that day marks the match as the highest point in one of the greatest sporting rivalries ever.

Among the tennis nerds however, what elevates the memory of this match above any other is a Brian Phillips piece for Grantland that followed. In what remains the most seminal piece of tennis writing one may come across, Phillips encapsulates every possible human emotion that a sporting contest of this scale invokes – in those involved as well as those who are merely witnessing it unfold. Explaining the competitive mechanics of a contest so intense, Phillips concludes it becomes impertinent beyond a point to have a winner at the end of it.

It is no less than a miracle to find nine years from that epic in Melbourne, Djokovic and Nadal are still the two best players in the world. Well, the seeding at the 2021 French Open might feel differently on that but it is frankly ridiculous to have any other opinion on the matter. The semifinal at the Rolland Garros on Friday between the two perhaps wasn’t quite in the same league as the 2012 classic. For one, it didn’t even go into the fifth set. Two of the four completed sets, though of reasonably long durations, were won fairly easily by both players.

But it is the level at which the other two sets were played that makes this match one for the ages. Both Djokovic and Nadal are in their mid 30s now. Despite the improved fitness standards of modern sport, there’s only so long the physical reality of things can be kept at bay. To witness the same two players display this level of excellence for well over a decade without a significant dip in their levels defies all wisdom we have learned about the inherent nature of sport.

The second and third sets in the match lasted for over 150 minutes between them. Neither player stood with a clear advantage at any point in this duration and displayed an array of thoroughly captivating groundstrokes and precision in movement. There was resolute defence, inventive volleys, powerful down the line winners, and some mind numbing cross-court passes. The quality of tennis played in the second and third sets of this match was so enthralling, the French authorities decided to allow fans in attendance to stay in the stands well beyond the mandated curfew hours.

The atmosphere – in no small part due to the enormous popularity of the players – became so absorbing beyond a point, the tennis itself became only an additional bit of detail. The contest deserves a special place in popular memory and that requires the kind of documentation that does adequate justice to its quality. Perhaps nothing less than another Brian Phillips masterpiece would suffice.

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The dynamics of a rivalry are fundamentally different in an individual sport as opposed to a team affair. While many in playing a team sport become a brand in themselves, their duels seldom involve entirely personal contests. A Lionel Messi or a Cristiano Ronaldo are entirely dependent on their respective team compositions and tactical systems to be effective in games being sold as a personal rivalry. A Sachin Tendulkar is only going to face a finite number of balls from a Shane Warne and is for the better part of his innings going to have to deal with Warne’s less glamorous teammates.

Rivalries in individual sports are diametrically opposite in this regard. Players here are exclusively in control of their game and the duel is only going to be determined by their efforts and theirs alone. Tennis rivalries therefore are the most definitely built and chronicled ones. Certain matchups favour a particular player’s style of play more than others’ and are thus more likely to excel at those. A player with a strong single-handed backhand is more adept at pushing a rival player deep with down the line strokes as opposed to those who prefer forehand slices and exploit angles.

Also read: Naomi Osaka and the Diminishing Relevance of Traditional Media in Sports

This current period in the Open Era is like none other in the history of men’s tennis and quite possibly in any competitive sport ever. The period has coincided with the three most prolific players plying their trade at their absolute best. It hasn’t dawned upon many how truly rare and remarkable period of history they are witnessing right in front of them but that’s the very nature of history. It’s best left to be celebrated while looking back.

While Roger Federer is by far the most aesthetically pleasing and charismatic to watch among the three, the Djokovic-Nadal rivalry is the most defining one of its time. Their duels are primarily characterised by a watertight defence, depth in returns, and an incredibly lateral reach. Neither has ever had the biggest of serves and both are hesitant at approaching the net. The points here are long and draining. The aces aren’t all that frequent. At times, a set is so gruelling, it takes an emotional toll on those watching too.

But this is precisely what makes the contest all the more enticing. There are very few obvious features in either player’s game that an opponent can tactically break and pounce on. Over the years, perhaps Nadal’s forehand hasn’t retained the same strength and like most players in the circuit today, Djokovic too tries to exploit that advantage to varying degree of success. But both being arguably the greatest ever at baseline defence considerably negates the possibility of any sustained one-upmanship.

Djokovic took a few more years to be universally accepted in the ultimate league of greatness. In fact by the time he started consistently winning majors, Nadal and Federer had already formed a rivalry the world had gone crazy over. Their 2008 Wimbledon final encounter still remains one of the most memorable and celebrated matches of all time. Djokovic had to break through this binary universe and convince the world he belonged pretty much in the same space as the other two.

Right since 2011 though, the Djokovic-Nadal encounters have been the defining theme of the current era. Even outside ‘that’ Melbourne epic, there have been plenty that have surprisingly failed to find a place in popular memory. Be it the 2013 semi-final at Rolland Garros where Djokovic came the closest to put brakes to Nadal’s hegemonic hold over the surface before the latter eventually triumphed or the 2018 Wimbledon semi-final that earmarked Djokovic’s comeback of sorts after a relatively bleak couple of years.

Both have even reserved absolute humiliations for the other on their respective strong surfaces. Nadal could barely take a point off Djokovic’s serve for a whole set in the 2019 Australian Open final which would rank among the lowest points in the Spaniard’s career. Djokovic faced a similar treatment a year later in the French Open final where Nadal took the first set without dropping a game.

Also read: Revisit the Top Ten Men’s Rivalries in the ‘Open’ Era

The two are quickly falling on the wrong side of 30s if they haven’t already. But neither looks like they’ll be done any time soon. The rivalry certainly has a few more colourful chapters left. But it’s highly unlikely the two will be able to replicate the intensity they put on show during that third set of Friday’s classic. Defeating Nadal at the Rolland Garros is quite possibly the single toughest challenge in all of sport. Djokovic has achieved this twice now and that it doesn’t even feel quite ridiculous is perhaps the ultimate ode to his greatness.

With time on their side, both Djokovic and Nadal are very likely to surpass Federer’s title tally in the next couple of years. One of them will most certainly end up as the most prolific men’s singles player in history and remain that for a considerably long time. As of now, it’s impossible to tell which one that will be.

Men’s tennis has never been short on rivalries for the fans to fawn over. Post the days of Björn Borg and John McEnroe, the world has witnessed some timeless classics involving Boris Becker and Stefan Edberg. The more modern period has Pete Sampras and Andre Agassi to speak of. Federer himself has played some unforgettable matches against both Djokovic and Nadal until as recently as 2019.

But in terms of sheer sustenance for over a decade and in the physically grilling character at its heart, the Djokovic-Nadal rivalry is nothing like anything witnessed before and quite possibly even long after they are gone. An extremely special chapter in all history is being played out right in front of us about four times a year. Its sheer repetitiveness shouldn’t get us too used to it to appreciate how truly rare it is to come by. This one bit of familiarity better not breed contempt.

Parth Pandya is an Ahmedabad-based freelance sports writer.