Roger Federer, Rafael Nadal, Novak Djokovic: A Trivalry in Men's Tennis

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Roger Federer, Rafael Nadal, Novak Djokovic: A Trivalry in Men's Tennis
Clive Brunskill/Getty Images

Wimbledon 2011 has stunned us. Novak Djokovic entered it, two weeks ago, something of a third-way favourite for the title, behind obvious champion candidates Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal.

He finished it yesterday, however, and truly. Novak Djokovic finished Wimbledon off, with yet another high-spun forehand into Nadal’s backhand side to draw the final error on the final point of the Gentleman’s Singles’Championships for 2011. He had won it, for the first time in his career.

All of a sudden, as it happens weekly in the tennis world, we seem to have a new king, a new man of the moment. Only, of course, that the Wimbledon champion tends to be the man of the moment. He is the new world No. 1, being for the first time someone other than Federer or Nadal since 2004 to hold the top spot, and has now won two of the four grand slams.

Is this the beginning, as his mother would have it, of a ‘Novak-Novak-Novak era’?

Three crucial matches of this European summer need to be examined. This very Wimbledon final in question, no doubt—but equally, the semifinal between Federer and Djokovic at the French, and the final between Nadal and Federer two days later.

Why? An uneasy, and intriguing pattern seems to emerge. Let us step back—from the hype, the passion, the irrational leaps to unjustified conclusions. If ever there were a science in tennis, it would need to be applied now.

All three of these key matches, between the top three players of this season, were won in four sets. The winner invariably leaped to a two sets to love lead, let the third slip, and ultimately came back to claim the match in four.

 Coincidence is probably only ever going to remain that—but can we glean deeper insights into the intricate power struggles in men’s tennis?

Federer won his encounter against Djokovic (likely the most dramatic of the three), 7-6, 6-3, 3-6, 7-6; Nadal, his against Federer, 7-5, 7-6, 5-7, 6-1; and Djokovic, of course, his against Nadal, 6-4, 6-1, 1-6, 6-3.

Say what one may about Jo-Wilfred Tsonga, or Andy Murray, who both came in over the last month and a half as a very close fourth and fifth; the top three, however, seem to have their own sway.

Matches between them, as these three evince, even transpire serendipitously for them. It is an uncanny similarity, and only reveals the tight balance of power at the top that Federer, Nadal, and Djokovic exercise over rest of men’s tennis.

Two sets went by for the winner in these three matches, only to see the eventual loser pick up his game just enough in the third to make the match respectable—there will be no blowouts between them. It is the fourth sets, however, that tell the real stories.

Federer won his fourth against Djokovic, 7-6, and 7-5 in the breaker; fewer sets had they ever played which so clearly described the dynamic between the two. They were close, and always on each others heels—unbreakable for the first eight games, and then suddenly so vulnerable on serve, at 4-4, and 5-5, respectively. The tiebreak was tight; but Federer, as Federer had been so often against Novak, just had that little extra. He was too good for Djokovic in the biggest moments, and finished the match with aplomb, an ace down the T sealing it—in the nick of time.

Nadal’s breadstick fourth against Federer, similarly, told the story of their rivalry. The match had been closely fought for the first three sets, but Nadal just had the answer to the threat Federer newly posed, having won the third in a swoosh emotion and momentum. He saved 0-40 in the first game, and looked back no more from there—he raised his game to dramatic heights, and surpassed even the once-unsurpassable Federer, as he has done so many times in his career. He swept the Swiss’ serve, the set, and match, 6-1.

The most recent of the three is probably still fresh in our minds. What might we have expected—everything of the best between Djokovic and Nadal, and a tale things past, and things to come.

Nadal had won the third 6-1, and looked to get even in the fourth; but Djokovic raised his game once again to the heights he had found in the first two sets, and started playing some unbelievable tennis. It is, of course, highly unfortunate for Nadal, and fortunate for Djokovic, that the former tends to look awfully beat out when the latter played as he did in the fourth set. It was all too much for Nadal—the ATP’s fittest player, and most pugilistic of competitors, had been broken, his backhand had suffered too many blows. Djokovic stepped in at 4-3, broke, and the rest is history.

In all, then, the last one month and a half, clearly perceived in terms of the existing power struggles in men’s tennis, has really been the story of three men.  Djokovic and Nadal has but been the overriding narrative, carried over from the fairytale four finals they had contested running up to the French; Federer, we must not forget.

The men’s tour, at the very very highest level, is thus acutely positioned in a unique three-way struggle, fashioned and conditioned by the set of unique circumstances invoked by the match-ups between them.

Federer can beat Djokovic, but just can’t figure out Nadal; Rafa has the clear upper hand against Roger, but just doesn’t know what to do when playing Novak (at least, for the moment).

It is a vicious triangle, and we all hope it re-lives itself, perhaps in even finer and grander forms, in the upcoming American hard court summer.

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