• US Open

Nadal against Djokovic is the best rivalry

September 9, 2013
Rafael Nadal and Novak Djokovic will be facing one another for a record 37th time © PA Photos

Forget Michigan-Notre Dame, Red Sox-Yankees, Coke and Pepsi. Novak Djokovic versus Rafael Nadal is the best rivalry in the world. Hyperbole is only fitting in New York, and by now it must be said with certainty that Djokovic-Nadal is the one, capitalised main event in men's tennis.

It will be realised, for the third time this year, the 37th time in history, the sixth time in a grand slam final and the third time at the US Open. And it will also serve as redemption, the rescue of a generally lackluster tournament, where 13 6-0 sets were produced on Arthur Ashe Stadium in two weeks (Serena Williams was responsible for five on her own), where the delicious appetiser - a first Nadal-Roger Federer US Open matchup in the quarter-finals - was left burning in the kitchen, put out by Tommy Robredo, and where defending champion Andy Murray, triumphant and weary from an arduous 12-month climb from doubt to vindication, realised that the cost of winning Wimbledon was the emotional energy required to defend his crown in New York.

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Such details will be retired to the back of memory, replaced by the events of a final that has secured and solidified Nadal-Djokovic as the gold standard of men's tennis. Today, the Federer-Nadal rivalry, for all of its history and the rabidity of the two camps, for all that both men have done to create some of the greatest theater on the sports stage, is an acrid, painful mixture of hope and fear. The hope, as was evidenced in Cincinnati last month, is that Federer can find solutions to his mounting on-court obstacles and rediscover the Federer majesty and power to provide more drama, to not only be competitive, but beat Nadal.

The fear, perhaps unfounded or exaggerated, is that Nadal, still at the height of his power, would undermine the magical years by destroying an aging Federer, sadly and mercilessly - the tennis equivalent of Joe Louis getting knocked through the ropes by Rocky Marciano. No one wants to see that, evidenced during the tournament by a repeated sentiment that by eliminating him before Nadal stepped in, Robredo may have done Federer a favour.

During Saturday's tantalising semi-final between Djokovic and Stanislas Wawrinka, an afternoon of line-clipping and shot-making, of fatigue and stamina, a thought continued to persist: Federer-Nadal may be past its prime, but Murray-Djokovic may not be a worthy enough suitor. Wawrinka played with a patient aggression, confident of his ability to rally, but wise enough to know protracted rallies favoured Djokovic.

So when he could, Wawrinka pounced. Two-handed crosscourt backhands from Djokovic begat a one-handed crosscourt backhand reply from Wawrinka, who had one thought in mind: get a ball with a high enough bounce to rip a down-line backhand and win the point.

Murray and Djokovic do not play that way. They are the masters of stamina, examples of stroke perfection. Murray and Djokovic almost delight in not going for winners because they seem like a cop-out in the great pursuit of the cleanly stroked 1,000-shot rally, tennis' great American novel. Maybe it is because they've known each other for so long. Maybe it's because their styles as natural counterpunchers are so similar. Maybe it's because they are actually friends and don't carry the inner venom required for outer combat.

Unlike Murray and Djokovic, Nadal and Djokovic attack each other. They fight on serve and on return. They snarl. Nadal drilled Djokovic in the head with a backhand return in Montreal. Djokovic wanted nothing to do with an apology. There are no style-pointed rallies, only shots designed to win or to gain advantage. Murray and Djokovic play to win. Nadal and Djokovic play to dominate.

Rafael Nadal has not lost a match on a hard court in 2013 © Getty Images

Nadal-Djokovic is the true heir to Connors-McEnroe, Celtics-Lakers, Cowboys-49ers and Federer-Nadal. Nadal is unbeaten on hard courts at 22-0 this year. Djokovic's No. 1 ranking is at stake. Djokovic is 3-2 lifetime against Nadal in Grand Slam finals, including an impressive four-set win in the 2011 US Open final.

Nadal is 21-15 against Djokovic all time. Djokovic holds an 11-6 record against Nadal on hard courts, but it was Nadal who beat Djokovic last month in the semifinals in Montreal. During this US Open, Nadal has been broken only once, which came in the second set of his semifinal against Richard Gasquet. He destroyed Robredo. Djokovic destroyed Mikhail Youzhny. Each has been circling this final for weeks.

Most tantalising is how each has forced the other to be a better player. It was losses to Nadal, in the 2010 US Open final especially, that provided the catalyst for Serbia's Davis Cup win and the legendary 2011 that propelled Djokovic to No. 1 in the world. It was Nadal losing seven straight finals to Djokovic that put him in the hell corner, face to face with the unattractive truth that Djokovic was the better player, that it was Djokovic, and not Federer, who had shattered all of Nadal's conventions and patterns.

The aftermath of the 2012 Australian Open has created the best rivalry going. Nadal is 5-1 against Djokovic since then, 4-1 in finals.

The alchemy of their points is as terrific as the margins for each is so slim. Perhaps it was the wind or by design because he did not feel threatened, but against Gasquet, Nadal's returns on both wings were dangerously short, most landing at or inside the service line. The short, topspin reply of Nadal was the shot that defined his defeats. Djokovic would step in, especially from the backhand side, and control the point, putting Nadal on the defensive, and he rarely recovered.

Meanwhile, during their last meeting in Montreal, Djokovic appeared surprised by Nadal's aggression and improved serve. Nadal attacked, naturally with his trademark forehand, unnerving Djokovic with his decision to stand inside the court.

During 2013, Nadal has flattened his shots, making them more offensive and aggressive. Djokovic's down-the-line backhand is the signature shot of their rivalry, and against Wawrinka, he was unable to unleash down-the-line winners. Nadal has withdrawn from overly defensive tactics on hard courts, seeking out inside-out forehand winner opportunities more than grinding down the resolve of his opponents.

Novak Djokovic is gunning for a second US Open crown © Getty Images

Still, much of the post-Australia 2012 relationship has been mental. In his 0-6 2011 against Djokovic, Nadal had won the first set twice. In their first encounter in 2012, Nadal won the first set of their epic final in Melbourne - only to lose the match. In 36 career meetings, Nadal has won only twice (2007 Wimbledon and 2009 Madrid) when losing the first set.

Djokovic as the indomitable presence was on display again versus Wawrinka, but in 2013 he has blinked against Nadal, most infamously up a break in the fifth set of their French Open semi-final, when he touched the net on an overhead smash. The personality of their matches since the 2012 Australian Open has taken on the characteristic that while Djokovic may be the better player, it is Nadal who has proved to be tougher, who will gain an opening and take advantage.

Neither has an advantage in the final. Djokovic is the top player in the world. Nadal is the best player of 2013. Djokovic is the best player on hard courts. Nadal is undefeated on hard courts.

Little else remains between the two but to deal the cards.

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