Although it was pretty much one-sided in favor of the Spaniard, who took 17 wins and lost eight, it was marked by the uniqueness of having a dominant No. 1 player—one considered to be the best all time—consistently losing to the No. 2 player for four years, until Nadal finally took over the top spot in 2008.
Roger Federer’s bucket list must contain only two remaining items: Convert this rivalry’s win-loss ratio to his favor and beat Rafael Nadal in a Roland Garros final. Although these two feats are not likely to happen at this point in Federer’s career, they would have surely established the Swiss player as the “Greatest of All Time.”
Since the Federer-Nadal rivalry has reached its peak and its glory days are probably gone, the eyes of the tennis world now turn to the new and most anticipated 2012 head-to-head battle: Rafael Nadal vs. Novak Djokovic.
Just when Nadal had finally secured the No. 1 spot in the rankings—dethroning the great Swiss—and seemed to have started his own reign, there came the improved and hungry Serbian, sweeping the 2011 season as if he was playing in his own backyard.
Overall, Nadal still has the head-to-head edge with 16 wins against 13 losses, but this becomes irrelevant considering that Djokovic took not only the last six, but also nine out of the last 11 matches they played. Djokovic is making Nadal taste his own medicine, turning the rivalry one-sided in his favor.
Every analysis of a tennis player should take into consideration three key aspects of the game: physicality, technique and mentality. Greatness can be defined by how well a player is able to put together these elements in the process of developing him or herself as a champion.
In that line of thinking, it would only be fair that these same three aspects, plus a tactical approach, were used to compare and analyze these two great rivalries.
The physical side gives a clear advantage to the Nadal-Djokovic rivalry, as they have provided some unbelievably brutal encounters, with hard hitting and court covering from both sides, equaled by no other pair of players before. These two are true athletes.
In the Nadal-Federer rivalry, there was a combination of the physicality—the powerful shots of the Spaniard against the finesse and class of the Swiss.
A curious coincidence takes care of the tactical analysis of both rivalries. The same play that made Nadal successful against Federer is his Achilles heel against Djokovic.
Being a lefty, Rafa’s major weapon is his heavy topspin forehand cross court, which bounces high and makes it very difficult for a right-handed player with a one-handed backhand, like Roger, to return it effectively.
In Novak Djokovic’s case, his two-handed backhand allows him to anticipate these cross-court forehands, take the ball on the rise and go for winners down the line—which is then the open court on Nadal’s side.
The technical side of the analysis must go to Nadal-Federer. The difference in style of the two players makes it a much more interesting matchup for those who truly appreciate a well-played tennis game. Technically, nobody plays tennis like Roger Federer. The fact that he is no longer in his prime is irrelevant to this point.
The mental aspect is also very interesting in both cases. We had Nadal getting into Federer’s head before and now we have Djokovic getting into Nadal’s head—something that was once considered impossible, due to the Spaniard’s mental toughness.
Federer will probably, and unfortunately, retire with this sort of bitter taste in his mouth, but Nadal has a chance to overturn it.
In conclusion, the Federer-Nadal rivalry is case closed. The differences in age and stage in their careers are likely to keep basically anything from changing the history that has been written so far.
However, the Nadal-Djokovic rivalry is still very much on. Rafa can change the one-sided look it presently has. This is one of the greatest expectations for 2012, and tennis fans should have something big to look forward.
So can the Nadal-Djokovic rivalry ever be as good as the Federer-Nadal rivalry? Perhaps it is too soon to come to any conclusion, and only time will tell.