Tennis fans understand deja vu in Paris. It’s the 2015 French Open, and once again it features the heliocentric rivalry between Rafael Nadal and Novak Djokovic. There are portentous signs that their next great battle will be in the quarterfinals, the winner claiming the inside track to hold the Musketeers Cup.
ESPN's Matt Wilansky provides some historical insight regarding Nadal and Djokovic meeting in the quarterfinals of a major:
Another sequel? Excuse those who would rather yawn and hope for anything else. Just not Nadal and Djokovic, right?
They’ve contested each other 43 times, fought for 22 title matches and spilled blood at each of the Grand Slam finals. They have changed their games and lifted their intensities, often ravaging the rest of the ATP field as they summon up all of their super powers to defeat the other. It’s the rivalry that never ends. It will go on forever, certainly well beyond the 2015 French Open, yes?
Or it could all end within days.
Three Historic Rivalry Phases
The Nadal-Djokovic rivalry is tennis’ version of The Iliad. First a budding conflict and then a series of streaks, prideful twists and marathon battles. It’s physical brutality, spiritual rejuvenation and gruelling endurance. The tennis gods have long ago abandoned ethereal Mt. Olympus for Paris’ Court Philippe Chatrier. Everything burns hotter at Roland Garros when Nadal and Djokovic strap on their armor.
To compress this labyrinthine Nadal-Djokovic tome into 21st-century postmodernist art and athletics, it’s an operatic masterpiece. The great composer Richard Wagner would score his boldest themes into three titanic and distinctive phases:
- Nadal capped off 2010 by defeating Djokovic at the U.S. Open to capture his career Grand Slam. This was “The Nadal High.” He was at the peak of his powers, above rival Roger Federer and seemingly poised to shatter many other records in the upcoming years.
- Djokovic’s remarkable rise in 2011 peaked at the 2012 Australian Open with his marathon victory at Nadal's expense. He had captured four of five majors as “Djokovic 2.0,” and tennis fans marveled at his “God Mode” tennis when he was in the zone of near-athletic perfection.
- Nadal’s comeback and return to dominance was the story of 2013, and the difference was his greatest French Open victory, a five-set semifinal thriller that would ultimately turn the rivalry in his favor. He would scorch the U.S. Open series and spend another stint with the No. 1 ranking.
Will there be one more great rivalry phase, or are we now witnessing Djokovic's total domination as the fourth and conclusive chapter?
The Last Great Battle?
If there was ever tennis mystique, then perhaps Nadal has enough clay-court magic to finish off Djokovic in the quarterfinals and break the tape on championship Sunday. If so, we might be witnessing another turn in the rivalry, perhaps a fourth great phase that could be shaped in future months. The rivalry will continue if Nadal is able to get back on his feet for big matches. BBC Sport considerers Nadal's French Open winning streak as the "greatest sporting record":
Conversely, Djokovic has the opportunity to rope up and topple the Nadal presence that still looms over Roland Garros like the eighth wonder of the world. Djokovic is not troubled by injuries and inconsistencies, and a quarterfinal loss would not stop him from continuing to rule from the top of the ATP.
If he wins the 2015 French Open title, it’s possible Djokovic could throw off Nadal for good, the way that Ivan Lendl finally tossed aside John McEnroe and Jimmy Connors in the mid-1980s. (Lendl trailed McEnroe 14-12 in their head-to-head rivalry but finished with nine victories in their last 10 meetings. Lendl trailed the more elderly Connors 13-5 before reeling off 17 straight wins.)
Whatever happens, French Open 2015 is likely a transcendent moment in their career rivalry. We don’t know now, but this could be their last great battle: Two aging warriors hitting and sliding into red-brick dust beneath the hot, setting sun where only one can claim another important piece to their career empires. A recent Rolling Stone article noted this is the year Djokovic will break through and win the French Open—his "white whale":
Most important for tennis fans, they are witnessing a special brand of living history. This is often hard to appreciate until digital highlights fade into archived memories. Dynamic legacies are like this. Perhaps Nadal and Djokovic will not play that quarterfinal match. Maybe it will be anticlimactic. Regardless, fans will strain their eyes to study the strands that get woven into another championship tapestry.
Nadal and Djokovic have spent a decade with a sword in one hand and a brick in the other, warring and rebuilding. Yes, they will likely play each other several more times after the French Open 2015, but perhaps never again with everything on the line, when they are the heliocentric powers that throw the rest of the tour in orbit.