With all of the rivalries at the top of men's tennis, Rafael Nadal and Andy Murray have not played each other in nearly two years. Since then, each player has won two Grand Slam titles, dealt with injuries and warred with Novak Djokovic.
The 2013 U.S. Open could finally see them battle as never before. Could this become a hot rivalry with multiple Grand Slam clashes?
Ships in the Night
When they last met in Tokyo, 2011, Murray snapped his five-match losing streak to Nadal. He had not yet joined forces with Ivan Lendl and was still serving as Grand Slam semifinal punching bag to Nadal.
Following his 2011 U.S. Open semifinal defeat to Nadal, Murray said of his opponent: “He’s probably the greatest player to play tennis,” according metro.co.uk.
The pre-Lendl version of Murray had majored in resilience as Nadal, Djokovic and Roger Federer all tutored him to become the star student at the school of champions. Murray credited Nadal with changing tennis into a more physical sport.
He was the example Murray needed as he toughened into a Grand Slam champion in 2012.
But Nadal and Murray have had nearly two years of their best success while the other player was down. Injuries and court surfaces have been the biggest factors. It was similar to the reason that John McEnroe and Mats Wilander could never establish a Grand Slam rivalry. Wilander was great on clay and McEnroe on grass, but not vice versa. They were ships passing in the night.
While Nadal’s monstrous clay-court conquests swept aside his competitors, Murray was marooned with injury. Clay has always been his weakest surface and less of a priority. His healing and rest was also a non-combative sanctuary from Nadal.
When Murray’s glorious sun rose at Wimbledon 2012, Nadal’s star collapsed for seven months. Murray’s success on grass and hard courts were surfaces on which Nadal has had to make a comeback. Now, Nadal is holding the Rogers Cup and blazing like Caesar's Comet.
Birth of a Rivalry
At Cincinnati’s Western and Southern Open, Nadal has a chance of wresting the World No. 2 ranking away from Murray.
If they do face off in Cincinnati it will be in the semifinals. It's a faster surface than at Montreal, which is something that Murray needs to generate greater counter-punching power. Murray’s speed and defense is best on the sure hard courts where he does not have to slide and hit through a ball.
For Nadal, it’s a continued opportunity to fine-tune his hard-court attack. He should be able to step in and dictate more points to either corner. Though Murray’s backhand is great, it lacks the power and angles that Djokovic has used successfully against Nadal.
In the past, Nadal destroyed Murray’s second serve and his forehand was too strong. Murray has since improved against Djokovic by moving the Serbian from corner to corner and forcing him into errors. He may try to force Nadal into more of a retriever’s role and force short shots.
It's most interesting to consider because we have not really seen them play as rivals. Murray is no longer the Big Three's punching bag but rather a feisty champion eager to put on the gloves, dance and deliver his own blows. There is blood to spill.
Best of all is the promise of seeing their competitive fire. Nadal has long been the ATP standard of iron will and unmatched composure. He is uncanny with big points and breaks his stoic demeanor with well-timed fist pumps. It can unnerve anyone, but this is a new Murray. How much has he closed the gap?
Murray’s pre-Slam championship doubts may have disappeared, but Nadal is still the ultimate exam for him. Will he scowl and scrap with confidence and control, or will he recall his former defeats to the Spaniard? It’s something he must face.
Maybe they will meet at Cincinnati. Perhaps they will clash at the U.S. Open as each makes his furious pitch to hold a second trophy in the streets of New York. It’s very possible they could rumble Down Under in hopes of dethroning Djokovic for the Aussie Open title and claiming the No. 1 ranking.
Nadal and Murray hope to stay healthy and keep rising with their best tennis. If they keep climbing, they will have to battle each other more frequently. The next couple of months could see them play three, four or five times and set up an exciting 2014.
Right now, the rivalry is poised to finally begin.