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Nadal's Rivalry With Djokovic Passes Federer

On July 6, 2008 in London, the already intense Roger Federer-Rafael Nadal rivalry became fully consummated as the two all-time greats engaged in what many believe to be the finest tennis match ever played during the Wimbledon final.

Nadal’s 6-4, 6-4, 6-7, 6-7, 9-7 triumph in darkness, on the last match played at the All England Club before a roof was installed, became the definitive turning point in their rivalry; no longer could it be said that Nadal owned Federer only on the clay. And, indeed, Nadal followed up this epic victory with a five-set – though much less dramatic - win over Federer in the Australian Open final just six months later to silence any doubt about his dominance over the man many have declared the greatest of all time.

Of course, even up to that extraordinary Wimbledon final, Nadal always had the upper hand in their rivalry; going into that legendary match, Nadal was already 11-6 vs. Federer (a breakdown by surface: 2-3 on hard courts, 0-2 on grass and 9-1 on the clay). Since Nadal triumphed in their very first encounter way back in 2004, he has never trailed in their rivalry.

And the fact remains that Federer has not defeated Nadal in a Slam since his five-set victory over his personal kryptonite in the 2007 Wimbledon final. Nadal currently leads their overall rivalry by a decisive 20-10 margin – 13-2 on clay, 6-6 on hard courts and 1-2 on grass. And, more tellingly, Nadal is 8-2 against Federer in the Slams.

If Federer were to defat Nadal at a major tournament at this point, even Wimbledon, it would be considered a tremendous upset (and it’s unfair now to expect that much of Federer against Nadal – or anyone else – considering that he’s nearly 32 and is beyond his prime. The fact that he’s still a legitimate threat at any tournament he enters is testament to his own greatness and his still-underrated physical conditioning).

Looking more closely at Federer-Nadal, three things are clear: 1) Nadal has led their series from the start, never leaving much doubt as to who had the upper hand; 2) for the last several years a significant degree of drama has been drained from their matches since the expectations on Federer have lowered significantly; and most importantly, 3) the main reason why it became such a legendary matchup so early on, even before they played a classic match, is that Nadal was the only player who was beating Federer. Starting with Wimbledon in 2003, it seemed that nobody was capable of beating Federer until Nadal came along. Remember – so many sportswriters jumped the gun and assumed that nobody could overtake Federer and that he was already the greatest player of all time.

In reality, the pair have contested two incredible matches – their 2008 Wimbledon final and the Rome final played in 2006. Of course they’ve had several close-to-classic matches such as their Australian final in 2009 or the last time Federer defeated Nadal at a Slam, at the Wimbledon final in 2007. But since their Australian final only two of their last 11 matches have even gone the distance.

Of course, the other component that makes their clashes such required and compelling viewing are the contrasting optics the pair present – the balletic moves and precise power of the right-handed Federer matched against the thunderous, heavy baseline missiles from the swashbuckling southpaw Nadal. It is an ideal, if overstated, contrast of which great rivalries are made of – think of Borg v. McEnroe. And Nadal’s deference to Federer – and let’s be honest, it’s not all that hard to be magnimous when you’re the one always winning – by seemingy always stating after a match that, “Roger is the greatest player of all time”, adds to the special place these two occupy in the sport.

Whatever the case, fans were gifted some incredible matches by two of the greatest shot makers the sport has ever seen; and Nadal and Federer are undoubtedly the pillars of this Golden Era in the sport.

But then things changed – and fast - at the top echelon of men’s tennis in 2011. After Nadal defeated Novak Djokovic in four sets to claim the 2010 US Open title, and a career Grand Slam with it, it seemed that nobody would threaten Nadal for another year or two. After all, his dominance over Federer was secure and players like Djokovic, Andy Murray and 2009 US Open champion Juan Martin Del Potro weren’t following through – and didn’t appear as they would – on their full potential.

But as we all know, just a few months after that US Open match, Djokovic won the Australian Open and proceeded to rampage through 2011, claiming three Slam titles in what is one of the great individual seasons of the Open era. And in the midst of his historic run, he managed to take out Nadal an unbelievable seven consecutive times in finals, including Wimbledon, the US Open and the Australian Open in 2012.

Suddenly Federer-Nadal seemed like ancient history. There was now only one rivalry in the sport that mattered. And suddenly it was Nadal who was cast in the “Federer” role – he had no answers for the puzzle that was Djokovic.

In fact, by late 2011 many had begun to wonder what Nadal would have to do to beat Djokovic. After all, it wasn’t the contrast in styles that presented such a problem for Nadal. It was the fact that Djokovic could do what Nadal had done to so many players – outlast them with bruising efficiency from the back court – only he was doing it better than Nadal. And worse, Djokovic got into Nadal’s head. Big time.

So by the time the Australian final of 2012 came around, it was evident to all observers that Nadal must do something to reverse course. What nobody saw coming, especially since Djokovic had dispatched Nadal in relatively easy fashion in four sets in both the previous Wimbledon and US Open championship encounters, was that the duo would produce a new Match For the Ages; a match that some think even surpasses that of the 2008 Wimbledon final (for me, they’re about equal).

While many up until 2012 may have refused to acknowledge that Nadal-Djokovic was just as special as Nadal-Federer, their nearly six-hour marathon of a final in Australia that Djokovic won secured their place in rivalry immortality. Was this possible, so many thought, that the Match of the Century could be followed up by an even more riveting Match of the Century just four years onward?

Nadal stopped the bleeding and the utter heartbreak he endured in Melbourne – he blew a 4-2 final-set lead in that Australian final - and got some measure of revenge when he beat Djokovic three consecutive times on the clay in 2012, culminating with his seventh French Open final. But the ensuing injury that kept Nadal out of the game for seven months immediately after halted what was sure to be constant enthralling drama for the sport. We all wanted more of Nadal and Djokovic, on all surfaces.

And, incredibly, here we are again, just moments removed from yet another epic contest. Nadal’s five-set (9-7 in the fifth) semifinal would surely be placed up there with the aforementioned greatest matches if not for the fact that it wasn’t a final, something the French tournament officials should be held accountable. And it provided symmetry to their Australian encounter in 2012 as this time, it was Djokovic who blew a break lead in the final set.

Their match on Friday marked the third phenomenal match they two have contested, along with the Australian final in 2012 and the final of the Madrid Masters in 2009 (which I wrote about at the time). And they’ve also had a umber of “B-plus epics”. So by the sheer count, Nadal and Djokovic have actually played in more thrilling matches than Federer and Nadal.

And a closer look at the numbers bears out just how more of a “rivalry” this really is, as opposed to a great matchup that always goes one way. Nadal started out by claiming 14 of their first 18 meetings, with Djokovic taking 11 of 17 since that time, although Nadal has won four of the last five. The back-and-forth nature of their stirring competition lends itself more literally to the meaning of the word rivalry than does Federer and Nadal.

And in terms of surfaces, Nadal clearly has the edge on clay where Djokovic leads on hard court with each claiming significant victories over the others on their favorite terrain; Nadal leads 13-3 on clay and 2-1 on grass, while Djokovic has a sizeable lead in the hard-court tally, 11-5.

In the Slams, the two are very even. Djokovic leads in finals, 3-2 - yet Nadal leads the overall Slam count, 6-3.

I don’t think there’s any doubt that if Nadal and Djokovic continue their majestic tussles in a few more Slams, it is their rivalry and not Nadal and Federer – that will go down as the greatest rivalry of this golden generation.

Bring on Wimbledon … and let’s hope they’re on the opposite sides of the draw this time.

NOTE: To some who may take issue with my strict definiation of an epic match in a rivalry – though both Nadal-Federer and Nadal-Djokovic have played some stirring matches that went the distance or at least a close four sets. For me a match has to end in extremely close fashion for it to be selected for the elite category of “epic.” 

Award-winning columnist Tim Joyce provides occasional commentary for RealClearSports. Email: joyce.timothy@gmail.com

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