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.