What Else Remains in the Rafael Nadal-Novak Djokovic Rivalry?

Jeremy Eckstein@https://twitter.com/#!/JeremyEckstein1Featured ColumnistJune 11, 2014

Serbia's Novak Djokovic, left, and Spain's Rafael Nadal, right, pose for photographers prior to the final of the French Open tennis tournament at the Roland Garros stadium, in Paris, France, Sunday, June 8, 2014.  (AP Photo/Michel Euler)
Michel Euler/Associated Press

Although Rafael Nadal defeated Novak Djokovic in another historic French Open, not all tennis fans are raving about their rivalry. This might be difficult to understand for their respective fanbases, but have we already seen the very best they can offer? Or will they elevate their rivalry with more epic battles?

All great rivalries are measured on a kind of aesthetic scale. Tennis players with dynamic personalities and contrasts of styles have often attracted a broader range of sports enthusiasts. Veteran tennis fans still refer to the halcyon years of Bjorn Borg vs. John McEnroe. More recently, other prominent contrasting rivalries have included Pete Sampras vs. Andre Agassi and Roger Federer vs. Nadal.

The Nadal-Djokovic rivalry is an alternative masterpiece, colored in darker hues, shaded by stubborn comparisons and fierce competitiveness. It’s more akin to the overlooked and mostly forgotten mini-rivalry between Jimmy Connors and Ivan Lendl. These are rivalries built on physicality, baseline bashing and hard-headed hubris.

Ron Frehm/Associated Press

The left-handed Connors was one of the most intimidating forces in tennis history, and he played every point with relentless hustle and energy. He was a creator and self-made champion who defied the conventions of his era.

The right-handed Lendl had to grow into his role by improving his toughness, fitness and championship mettle. Eventually, he would step ahead of Connors and rule with the biggest groundstrokes of the mid-1980s. (Sidenote: Connors was seven years the senior of Lendl and won their first eight matches. They had a true competitive streak in the early 1980s, culminating with Connors’ 1983 U.S. Open win, his last major. After this 13-5 Connors lead, Lendl tore through Connors for 17 straight victories. Nobody talks about that. Connors is still probably fuming over those losses.)

So there is a type of precedent in terms of intensity and bulldogged styles, but it still does not approach Nadal vs. Djokovic.

There's myth and mortality in this rivalry. Nadal-Djokovic could lead us to believe that they are twin tennis gods separated at birth. They are awesome on slow-medium surfaces; They are fit and mentally tough; They are relentless, determined and willing to fight each other time and again for the biggest trophies in tennis. But they have had untimely injuries and misfortunes, in part because they are willing to destroy themselves to defeat each other.

It leaves us all wondering what else they can possibly accomplish against each other?

Michel Euler/Associated Press


Blockbuster Rivalry

Great rivalries produce several memorable performances and fans anticipate them like blockbuster movies. Nadal-Djokovic has been a wonderfully unique and special rivalry in its own right, like a blockbuster trilogy. We watch one, enjoy another and look forward to the next.

If Federer-Nadal had more universal appeal like the original Star Wars trilogy, then Nadal-Djokovic is more violent, brutal and presentable for a specialized audience that can appreciate the depth and complexity of its edgier tone. Insiders will perhaps consider it a better rivalry, more critically acclaimed and competitive, like Francis Ford Coppola’s Godfather trilogy.

Nadal-Djokovic had its first storyline from 2006-2010 in which Djokovic had to find his way into the rivalry. He always had the tools and talent, but he became a compelling competitor by refusing to back down to Federer or Nadal. By late 2010, he was ready to emerge from their shadows.

MELBOURNE, AUSTRALIA - JANUARY 29:  Rafael Nadal of Spain and Novak Djokovic of Serbia applaud during the presentation ceremony after Djokovic won the men's final match against  during day fourteen of the 2012 Australian Open at Melbourne Park on January
Clive Brunskill/Getty Images

The middle act was the rise of Djokovic to the top of tennis in 2011-12. His talent and will combined with improved fitness and belief. He dominated Nadal through seven straight finals matches, including three straight Grand Slam championships. This climaxed in the 2012 Australian Open final, considered by many to be one of the greatest matches of all time, and at least one of the most physically grueling.

Now they are somewhere late in the third film. They are superpowers trading blows time and again in big Masters 1000 and Grand Slam matches. We’ve seen the resurgence of Nadal to the top of tennis in 2013, and Djokovic’s indefatigable responses. They created another masterpiece in the 2013 French Open semifinals. Both players put time in their labs, training, evolving and adjusting their tactics and efforts with a kind of fury that mirrored their on-court rivalry.

They have leaped well in front of their nearest competitors as if only they existed on Mount Olympus in their personal duels to control the entire ATP tour. Djokovic might have a trident, but Nadal will throw a thunderbolt. In the process, they are creating bigger monsters in each other.

Or they are destroying each other. One day they just might drop down in front of each other through pure exhaustion and broken powers. It would only be fitting.

And that’s the way it felt in the 2014 French Open final. It might have been ugly at times, but it was also filled with gutsy shots and a lot of heart. In some respects, it was more taxing than the 2012 Australian Open final, both players a couple years older, holding off other challengers and laboring with obsessive desires to claim a trophy that  only one would be able to keep. They drained their reserves to win the ultimate prize, and this time Nadal had more strength left to arrive at the finish line.

So how do they top the previous 42 matches and championship battles? Are they soon to round out the glorious trilogy or will we get a fourth film?

Fourth films rarely succeed. Steven Spielberg and George Lucas are probably still trying to wipe their names off the credits to Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull. And the Godfather trilogy does not need another act.

NEW YORK, NY - SEPTEMBER 09:  Rafael Nadal of Spain stands next to Novak Djokovic of Serbia during the trophy presentation after winning the men's singles final on Day Fifteen of the 2013 US Open at the USTA Billie Jean King National Tennis Center on Sept
Matthew Stockman/Getty Images


More Epic Battles?

How long will Nadal-Djokovic keep fighting for titles? We’ve seen three U.S. Open title meetings with Nadal winning in 2010 and 2013 and Djokovic claiming the 2011 title.

We’ll continue to talk about that Australian Open 2012 final. That will never be topped Down Under if they meet again.

They have faced off for the 2011 Wimbledon title where Djokovic steamrolled to his most historic title.

The French Open has been glorious, epic, agonizing, physical and heartbreaking. Will fans get up again in 2015 for another Djokovic attempt to knock off Nadal? Or are the non-Nadal and non-Djokovic fans tired from the length of this third act? Would they rather go watch something else—even a low-grade comedy with no drama, plot twists or astounding actors?

Fortunately, tennis and sports are not so scripted. We tune in because every new opportunity is a blank slate waiting to be filled in with new performances and heroics. We cannot predict just when the next classic match will appear, or when we will suddenly no longer see these legendary champions vie for supremacy.

How about Wimbledon once more? Three years have passed and Nadal-Djokovic would undoubtedly stage something original.

LONDON, ENGLAND - JULY 03:  Novak Djokovic of Serbia holds the championship trophy after winning his final round Gentlemen's match against Rafael Nadal of Spain on Day Thirteen of the Wimbledon Lawn Tennis Championships at the All England Lawn Tennis and
Julian Finney/Getty Images

What about Nadal’s quest to get the double career Grand Slam? Would a victory over Djokovic in Melbourne be the crowning jewel to their rivalry?

Consider again that Nadal could win 10 French Open titles. Consider that Djokovic could finally be the one to conquer the King of Clay in a French Open final. Even Nadal fans would grudgingly admit that Djokovic is the one who has proven worthy of breaking this stranglehold at Roland Garros.

There is great respect in this rivalry despite the competitive tension. They continue to deny each other Grand Slam titles in order to complete their own missions. And in this rivalry, they have both shown that even their very best can sometimes not be enough.

The intermediate future looks as if there will be more Grand Slam clashes, but we also do not know when it will suddenly end. Through it all, there will always be the certainty that these two will spill their blood for another major title.

They will never stop competing as hard as they can. This is the beauty to their great rivalry, and if this cannot be appreciated, then we may as well tune into recreational badminton.


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