Rafael Nadal vs. Novak Djokovic: 7 Keys to Building an All-Time Great Rivalry

Jeremy EcksteinFeatured ColumnistMarch 16, 2012

Rafael Nadal vs. Novak Djokovic: 7 Keys to Building an All-Time Great Rivalry

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    Novak Djokovic and Rafael Nadal are ranked as the top two players in tennis, and they have set an impressive standard of winning with their championship play and passionate personalities.

    Many fans would already rate this as one of the all-time great rivalries in tennis history, and it may just be getting started.

    However, the best laid expectations of players and fans will often go awry. A rivalry is a tenuous entity, and even as it seems to hit its stride, could disintegrate within weeks. There are internal variables within each player, and external forces that will determine the value and longevity of an evolving rivalry.

    What can these two tennis titans do to build on their personal accomplishments and take this rivalry to even greater heights?

    Here are seven additions that would ensure this rivalry is an all-time hit.

#7 Epic Matches and Great Moments

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    The 2012 Australian Open Final was one of the greatest matches of all time. It ushered in an era that has clearly established Djokovic as the dominant player, but left tennis fans with a sense that Nadal is still his chief rival.

    It's the kind of match that has already been scrutinized, savored, and shared. Tennis fans eagerly await the next sequel of this blockbuster series, hopeful for an encore.

    But epic matches are rare, and to expect a rerun at the French Open could set the stage for disappointment. It's the exception rather than the norm.

    Pete Sampras, for example, did not have many memorable Grand Slam finals matches, but there were indelible quarterfinals contests against Jim Courier at the Aussie Open in 1995, and with Alex Corretja at the U.S. Open in 1996.

    On the other hand, tennis enthusiasts will not want to miss Djokovic vs. Nadal should they star in any of the prequels to the French Open. Great moments or turning points can occur at any time. Fans may witness magical moments, riveting tennis or subtle changes in the rivalry.

    Still, one or two more epic matches over the next few years will be well worth our attention.

#6 Trading Grand Slams

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    Djokovic and Nadal have each won four of the last eight Grand Slams. By the numbers, this seems like a perfect balance to their rivalry.

    But tennis observers understand the seismic shift of power that occurred sometime between late 2010 and early 2011. Djokovic has won the last three Grand Slams at Nadal's expense, and is looking to leap further ahead.

    For the sake of the rivalry, Nadal must continue to elevate his game and win some matches against Djokovic. This would add more intrigue for fans and possibly raise the level of competition.

    Trading Slams between rivals is a major part of what older tennis fans often talk about in the early Open era. They can cite the twists and turns of contests between Borg, McEnroe, Connors and other champions.

    Nadal and Roger Federer fans hope to rekindle a rivalry with Grand Slams at stake.

    Djokovic would rather continue his personal dynasty.

#5 Contrasts of Style, Behavior and Personality

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    Mercurial John McEnroe was serve and volley. Icy cool Bjorn Borg was a passing-shot expert. It was the perfect storm of tennis and temperament.

    Stoic Pete Sampras, the super-serving machine, was opposed by charismatic Andre Agassi who dazzled with baseline precision.

    Djokovic vs. Nadal seems to have less appeal to mainstream sports and tennis fans. Some fan threads and blogs have opined that their tennis is boring.

    But their back-and-forth body language makes for some of the most intriguing face-offs ever. The longer the match and the bigger the point, the more expressions to delight the viewers.

    Djokovic used to be more volatile, with occasional racket abuse and unchecked emotion. Now it is Nadal whose face cracks with more strain as he wills himself forward with extra doses of intensity.

    Perhaps many non-tennis fans will one day do more than label the rivalry as "Defiant Nadal, a defensive grinder with lefty topspin is opposed by fierce Djokovic's dual-sided power strokes."

#4 Spreading Fan Interest

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    Roger Federer has made his mark on the wide world of sports. He is tennis' version of Michael Jordan or Tiger Woods, an all-time athlete who transcends his sport.

    Nadal and Djokovic individually do not have quite the same clout outside the tennis realm, but their rivalry has more room for popular appeal. Both have incredible drives to be champions, and the right kind of extra variable or spark could broadcast tennis to even more numerous audiences.

    Europe and Australia have always patronized tennis through its historical peaks and valleys but sports-saturated America has been more fickle, depending upon the personalities at the top.

    But there are also untapped viewers in Asia and Africa. Last year's French Open women's final drew nine million more viewers than last month's Super Bowl. Chalk that up to the rooting interest for China's Li Na.

    Djokovic and Nadal must exhibit more than intensity and great tennis. Can they be more accessible on tour, online and in the hearts of fans?

#3 Commercials and Sports Media

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    Sampras and Agassi had Nike to help promote their rivalry in the mid-90s.

    Roger Federer teamed with Tiger Woods for some excellent cross-sports exposure. Federer's fifteenth Grand Slam title was also celebrated with legendary athletes.

    Certainly the American hype machine will promote great athletes and rivalries, but it will also take effort, creativity and willingness from tennis' two top players.

    Can Djokovic and Nadal collaborate despite their competitive war for Grand Slam trophies?

    It would garner enormous boosts to their popularity should they make room for commercialization.

    In addition, both players would help promote tennis with more interviews and appearances with events. They have taken steps in this direction, but a few more could further magnify their greatness.

#2 Quotes, Barbs, Challenges and Incidents

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    Sometimes a little bulletin board material will spice up a match or rivalry, especially for the fans.

    In 2005, after the first year of his reign, Federer was set for a quarterfinals match against an aging Agassi. Apparently, Federer was weary of the media hype centering on eighth seeded Agassi's chances of upending his newfound dominance.

    Federer, as reported by Jake Niall, said, "He's not as good as he was when he was at the top of the ranking, otherwise he'd be there."

    In the pregame telecast, Agassi's former coach, Brad Gilbert, said Agassi should be ready after Federer's "fighting words."

    In some ways, Federer may have seemed like a villain to Agassi supporters. On the other hand, Federer's brash comments proved his confidence and mettle. He was guaranteeing a victory.

    The result? One of Federer's most crushing wins (6-3, 6-4, 6-4) in a match more lopsided than the score. It seemed a rude way to treat a fading legend, but it was a statement to the entire field.

    Djokovic and Nadal had occasional differences a few years ago with the former trying to harness his potential. Now, things are almost too quiet and respectful for such intense competitors.

    All it takes is a purposeful or misguided comment to arouse the ire of one or both players and their respective fan bases.

    This isn't to say that sports fans should root for classless behavior or incidents, but when they happen they provide an unpredictable and possibly meaningful turn in a rivalry.

    Stay tuned.

#1 Longevity in a Great Rivalry

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    Djokovic and Nadal have been battling for the past five years, but the rivalry for no. 1 began at the U.S. Open in 2010.

    Since then, Djokovic has dominated, with seven straight victories including the last three Grand Slam titles.

    In comparison, the Federer vs. Nadal rivalry had Grand Slam battles spanning from 2005-2011, with future encounters still a possibility.

    Djokovic and Nadal need at least three more years with four or five more Grand Slam clashes in order to rival Federer vs. Nadal.

    History shows the odds are against it:

    Bjorn Borg vs. John McEnroe suddenly ended in 1981.

    McEnroe fizzled just as Ivan Lendl peaked.

    Monica Seles vs. Steffi Graf met its horrific conclusion.

    Pete Sampras and Jim Courier were two ships passing in the night.

    Sampras and Andre Agassi was more intermittent than continuous.

    Martina Hingis versus the Williams sisters was regrettably over too soon.

    Tennis greatness usually has a very short shelf life for one player, let alone for a duo to perform above the field. It's certainly possible that it can last longer, but extrapolation has never equaled prediction.

    Here's to hoping for more great tennis in the Djokovic vs. Nadal rivalry, however long or short it lasts.