It’s hard to have the greatest rivalry in your sport. So many different eras come into play, stats, primes, rules and the millions of what ifs? And even then, once a rivalry reaches that status it is forever questioned, loved by one generation and doubted by others.
In sports we love to take sides. Rivalries allow us to witness wars, align with good or evil and create infinite debate. We love them because seemingly rivalries allow us to witness the best a person has to offer.
We always hear how athletes play a little harder during such rivalries and that’s what we like. Celtics/Lakers, Yankees/Red Sox, Brady/Manning, Penguins/Capitals we can’t get enough. Sometimes a rivalry can become so big that fans of other teams and players join in and take a side.
Tennis is a little different though. In this sport, it truly is the ultimate one on one battle. While you need the skills and the ability half the game is mental. There are no outside interferences, no extreme changes in rule sets; if you lose there’s no one to blame. Thus a tennis rivalry is one of a different sort. It’s one on one, winner take all.
That being said, when a tennis rivalry develops, it becomes big, and if both players are at the top tier it almost becomes the sport itself.
I still believe the best tennis rivalry is the one I grew up with: Agassi vs. Sampras. During the 1990’s they were the product of USA tennis, you didn’t say tennis without thinking of one of those names.
34 times they’ve met, with Sampras taking 20 and Agassi 14. Nearly half of those matches were in a finals setting. Sampras is 6’1 while Agassi is 5”11, and they are only a year apart in age, thus both played most of their matches against each other in their prime, that of a Larry Bird and Magic Johnson.
This past decade’s most popular rivalry has been Roger Federer vs. Rafael Nadal, and even though it’s partly one sided, it stands out for a few reasons. Although they’ve played each other 23 times, with Nadal leading 15-8, they’ve had some extreme matches with changes in strategy occurring mid match and amazing fluidity in shots that seem almost impossible.
The 2008 Wimbledon Final was that of legend, and it’s had performances that you just don’t get to see in a regular professional tennis match. The rise of social media and sports information access have only further helped both men in attaining more popularity.
Despite other amazing and some longer rivalries like Agassi vs. Sampras, Bjorn Borg vs. John McEnroe and Stefan Edberg vs. Boris Becker many cite Federer vs. Nadal as the greatest tennis rivalry of all time.
If that’s true than Nadal vs. Novak Djokovic should have the ability to overtake it.
We all have seen or heard the news about Djokovic; he’s hotter than lava right now. But that’s only on hard courts. Now that the clay court season is beginning, we will truly get to see if Djokovic has taken over, or if someone, mainly Nadal, who rules clay, will quiet him down.
A win at the French Open would do wonders for him, but a win over Nadal in the French Open? That would push his career, and this rivalry. As it stands, Nadal leads Djokovic 16-9 as compared to 15-8 with Federer, virtually the same.
However, if Djokovic should survive and triumph during the clay season and possibly beat Nadal again, his momentum would by sky high riding into Wimbledon and the US Open (where he lost to Nadal in the final last year).
While Novak Djokovic may never truly reach Roger Federer’s popularity, he has something Roger doesn’t: time. At 23 years old, he is a year younger than Nadal and six years younger than Federer, and if this season is any indication, he is entering his prime. In contrast Federer and Nadal are almost too far apart.
Four and a half years is a long time in tennis, as the body breaks down a lot faster. Thus it was inevitable that in this rivalry Nadal would start to catch Federer on the downside of his career. This isn’t to say that Maestro can’t beat the Matador anymore, just that it may be a lot tougher to do so, especially considering Nadal always had better athleticism in the first place.
This isn’t a problem for Djokovic though, who is cunning and has the athleticism to match. Thus if he, as well as Nadal, are able to keep up this level of play they have a good three to four prime years that they can flesh out into a longer, fiercer rivalry and as a fan of both I definitely can say I’m looking forward to it.
As the world number one and two, and the way current stats have shown, it may look like no one is standing in their way to meeting a couple more times this year.
That is, unless a motivated Roger Federer has anything to say about it.