Roger Federer vs. Novak Djokovic: The Best Hard Court Rivalry
It might sound like heresy, but at the US Open, I care more about seeing Federer play Djokovic than I do seeing Federer versus Nadal.
Don't get me wrong: I adore the match-ups between the Swiss Maestro and the Mallorcan Matador. At least on the men's side, you have to acknowledge that their pairing has yielded some of the best matches of the open era. And at Wimbledon 2008, they produced the best match ever.
They are referred to now with one word, Fedal. They fuel Greatest of All Time debates that rage across seemingly every tennis comment thread of the last five years. They cause us to do strange things like build half grass/half clay tennis courts.
And if I had titled this article "Federer vs. Nadal: Nothing New to Say," it would still get a few thousand hits.
But at the US Open, there is no Federer versus Nadal. Few people realize that for all their clashes on the red dirt of Roland Garros and the lawns of Wimbledon, Roger and Rafa have only had eight of their 25 meetings on hard courts, where they enjoy an even head-to-head record. Only one of these was in a hard court grand slam, at the 2009 Australian Open final. A great match, but hardly defining enough to inspire the building of a half DecoTurf/half clay court.
The Djokovic versus Federer match-up has yielded 19 hard court meetings. That's right: 19. The head-to-head is a fairly even 11 to eight, and eight of the matches have gone the distance.
More importantly, seven of those meetings have been in Grand Slams. Three of the last five Australian Opens have featured Djokovic versus Federer meetings and the eventual winner has always gone on to claim the championship.
At the US Open, the record is even more remarkable.
The two clashed in a 2007 final won by Federer and since then have met in three straight semifinals. Despite a tough draw for Federer this year, a semifinal meeting once again appears inevitable.
We often think of Sampras versus Agassi as defining one of the great hard court and US Open rivalries, but they only met four times total spread over 12 years. They met 20 times total on hard courts in that same span. Or perhaps Connors and McEnroe? Nope, only four times, spread over 13 seasons.
At least on the men's side, Djokovic and Federer have provided us with a superlative streak of tennis at the US Open, a streak likely to be extended this year.
We have no statistics for how players feel about each other.
But it seems safe to say that little love is lost between the two players.
Surely, almost every player has celebrated internally after winning a point, even if it's from an unforced error by the opponent. Surely many have strategically used injury. Perhaps quite a few have made fun of Maria Sharapova. But Djokovic flaunts all this, and more, rather publicly. He wears everything on his sleeve.
In a sport that seems to require at least a veneer of seriousness and sincerity, with public relations built around phlegmatic sound bites, Djokovic and his family stick out like a sore thumb.
Djokovic and Federer are, in many ways, opposite personalities. And that adds zest to their rivalry. It was why we reveled in McEnroe versus Borg, or Sampras versus Agassi.
We appreciate the seemingly genuine camaraderie of Nadal and Federer, but sometimes we want a little spice too.
Between Djokovic and Federer, there is no game changing exchange. There is no lefty topspin forehand to one handed backhand.
There is no narrative about offense versus defense. There is no story to tell about the serve-volleyer versus the baseliner.
Perhaps the only contrast we can find is the two-handed backhand versus the one-handed backhand, or the occasional variety of Federer versus the more consistently flat, baseline game of Djokovic.
But really, despite their age difference, the two have only marginal differences in ability across all areas of their game. Often, it produces sparkling hard court tennis, as in the video.
But What About Djokovic Versus Nadal?
Rafa and Djokovic have clashed a total of 28 times, currently even with the Fedal rivalry in quantity if not quality, but likely to surpass it soon by both measures.
On hard courts, the two have played each other 14 times, with the Serb holding a nine to five advantage. But as with the Fedal rivalry, the two have only met once at a Grand Slam.
Last year's US Open final was a high quality, four set affair, but Djokovic's inability to fully bounce back from the Federer semifinal of the day before proved decisive.
Someday, their rivalry will more fully develop in hard court Grand Slams. Maybe even this year.
But for now, it's still a work in progress.