Some tennis players live long, full lives together. Rod Laver and Ken Rosewall played 144 times, with Laver ending up ahead 80-64; Martina Navratilova and Chris Evert faced off on 80 occasions, with Navratilova finishing in the lead 43-37.
Other duos set off youthful sparks before burning out early. Bjorn Borg and John McEnroe played 14 matches, with each man winning seven; Steffi Graf and Monica Seles, sadly, met just 15 times, with Graf ahead 10-5.
This past Sunday, Rafael Nadal and Novak Djokovic officially entered middle age together. It was their 40th meeting—the Big 4-Oh—though from a competitive standpoint it was one of their least memorable. For the third straight time, Djokovic was by far the better player. Last fall, in both Beijing and London, he beat Rafa 6-3, 6-4; in Miami he closed him out even more rapidly, 6-3, 6-3. It was one of the most comprehensive wins by either man since they first met at the French Open eight years ago.
With this result, Djokovic and Nadal have also come full circle in six quick months. As recently as last September, it was the Spaniard who was completing his own hat trick against the Serb; Nadal’s win in the U.S. Open final was his third straight over Djokovic, and marked his sixth win in their last seven matches. It also virtually guaranteed that he would reclaim his year-end No. 1 spot from Djokovic. For a fleeting moment, Nadal seemed to have the upper hand in the rivalry on both clay and hard courts for the first time.
“Fleeting moment” is the important phrase here, because that’s what the Nadal-Djokovic rivalry has mostly been about: A series of seemingly solid, but ultimately illusory periods of momentum traded back and forth. After the Miami final, Djokovic’s coach Marian Vajda compared the two to Formula One drivers jockeying for position at the front of the race from one week to the next. It’s a good analogy for their careers together. Just when one man appears to have solved the other and put him in the rearview mirror, the other one switches gears and comes roaring past him again. After 40 matches, Nadal leads 22-18, a margin that has been slowly narrowing over the last four years.
Rafa-Nole, in its eternal back and forth, is a rivalry in the truest sense of the word. Since they first played, in ’06, only twice has either man put together a winning streak that lasted longer than three matches. In 2008 and 2009, Nadal won five consecutive times. In the most famous sequence between them, Djokovic beat Rafa seven straight times from March 2011 to January 2012.
After Miami, Novak has his nose in front again. Only time, and their next expected matchup in the Monte Carlo final, will tell whether he can extend his streak, or whether it’s time for Nadal to make another counterattack.
Judging by the statistics I just went over, you might expect it to be Rafa’s time again, and that’s not just because the tour will switch to his favorite surface, clay, for the next two months. It also has to do with this rivalry’s psychology. Part of what has kept these two in flux for so long is the respect that each shows for the other’s game. Any time they’re asked to discuss the other, or to give some insight into how they approach their matches, Nadal and Djokovic talk about how they simply have to play their best to win, and that anything less isn’t going to get it done. They’ve felt that way from the start; I remember being struck by Nadal’s praise for the up-and-coming Djokovic as early as the spring of 2007. Even then, Rafa was already saying that it was no shame to lose to Novak because, “Djokovic is a great player, and that’s it.” Four years later, after Djokovic beat Nadal in the final in Indian Wells, the Serb called the Spaniard the greatest player ever.
The upshot of their two-sided respect is that whenever one player gains the upper hand on the other, his natural instinct isn’t to expect to keep that upper hand, but to have to give it back at some point. And when one player falls behind, his instinct is to believe that, with a tactical maneuver or two, he can take the lead again. Neither Nadal nor Djokovic expects to beat the other forever, and so far they haven’t.
Will that change this time? Will things be different as the two enter their 40s as rivals, and edge closer to their 30s as players? In Miami, Djokovic didn’t just have the edge in execution, he also had the tactical edge. In the past, it seemed that his natural advantage on hard courts was enough; he was so solid all around that he could stay within his normal game and force Nadal to take more risks and be more aggressive than he likes to be. This time, Djokovic went a step farther. He specifically went into Nadal’s forehand and exploited the extra room that Rafa leaves on that side. I’ve never seen Nadal have fewer chances to hit his inside-out forehand, or get beaten so badly by an opponent’s crosscourt backhand. As Djokovic said afterward, that’s a tactic that should work on any surface, including clay.
Now it’s up to Rafa to turn the tables back around, to find a way to cover that open court and still create chances to hit his inside-out forehand. The location will be on his side; in Monte Carlo, he’ll be going for his ninth title at his favorite tournament. Is time still with the 27-year-old Rafa? This week the blog Thriding had a look at the numbers over in the Rafa-Nole rivalry over the years. What sticks out is how, since Djokovic’s career turnaround at the 2010 Davis Cup, he has closed the early gap that Nadal had opened between them. Up to that point, Nadal led 16-7; since then, Djokovic is ahead 11-6. By that measure, according to Thriding, we “might expect” the head-to-head to be 26-26 two years from now. But he also writes, “Are we really expecting nothing to change in the next 24 months?” We might also ask: Will the trend of the last four years continue, or is another phase about to begin?
Of more immediate importance is the fact that, since 2010, Nadal only leads Djokovic 4-3 on clay, and last year Nole stopped his eight-year win streak in the Monte Carlo final. After that match, Djokovic sat down on the sideline with a smile that mixed disbelief with satisfaction. I was reminded of the first time Djokovic had played Nadal on clay, at Roland Garros in 2006. Even after retiring down two sets to love, a 19-year-old Nole turned heads in the interview room when he claimed that he had been in control of the rallies, and that the King of Clay was “beatable.” In Monte Carlo, the 26-year-old Djokovic showed that Rafa was indeed beatable on that court. This year, Nole will try again to prove his 19-year-old self right by beating Nadal on his other favorite court, in Paris.
As for Rafa, he looked relieved to have his streak in Monte Carlo snapped. And while it appeared that Djokovic had the upper hand in their rivalry heading into the clay season, it would be Nadal who would go on to win 44 of his next 45 matches, including three over Djokovic, and finish the season No. 1. Nadal seemed freed up somehow after his Monte Carlo defeat, the same way Djokovic was freed up after surrendering the No. 1 ranking to Rafa at the U.S. Open. Sometimes, the loser can win.
Through 40 wins and losses, the rule of thumb between Nadal and Djokovic has been that, eventually, the hungrier player finds a way. The question now, as Rafa stands at No. 1 but Nole has nosed ahead in their ever-fluctuating personal battle, is which of them is the hunter, and which is the hunted?