Men's Tennis

Rafael Nadal and Novak Djokovic: Can This Rivalry Replace Fedal in Popularity?

NEW YORK, NY - SEPTEMBER 12:  Novak Djokovic of Serbia holds up the winner's the trophy as Rafael Nadal (L) of Spain holds up the runner up award after Djokovic defeated Nadal during the Men's Final on Day Fifteen of the 2011 US Open at the USTA Billie Jean King National Tennis Center on September 12, 2011 in the Flushing neighborhood of the Queens borough of New York City.  (Photo by Clive Brunskill/Getty Images)
Clive Brunskill/Getty Images
Vee JayAnalyst ISeptember 14, 2011

In 2010 when Rafael Nadal and Novak Djokovic fought for the title in the finals of the US Open, I wrote that it was the beginning of a new rivalry to replace the Roger Federer-Rafael Nadal rivalry (Fedal).

This year the two young men have met six times in finals, two of them in Grand Slams. They have proven that they are both better than the field and the contest for any important title would in all probability be between them.

Technically, they have a true rivalry. But really, is it a rivalry when one player steamrolls the other every time and on every surface?

Djokovic has beaten Nadal every time this year and Nadal has looked completely clueless except at the US Open where he showed signs of making some sense of the Djokovic riddle.

Djokovic has shown vulnerability to Federer and Andy Murray and some discomfort against Thomas Bellucci, Bernard Tomic, Juan Martin Del Potro and even Viktor Troicki.

This may have been because Djokovic, knowing he could not win slams unless he could get past Nadal, has trained strategically to exploit Nadal's weaknesses just as Nadal had trained to beat Federer.

But because of the age difference between Nadal and Federer, although their head to head was lopsided, the outcome of their meetings was never predictable. Secondly on Grass and Hardcourts, they were more evenly matched.

The drama of a young genius challenging the established Master made the Fedal rivalry the most famous rivalry in tennis and won both players a record number of fans. The old Master continued his dominance, even as he continued to cede more and more ground to the challenger.

Such is not the case with Nadal and Djokovic, however.

They are nearly the same age and while so far Nadal has enjoyed a positive head to head with Djokovic, it seems that it is only a matter of time before the head to head turns adverse for the Spaniard as the Serb has beaten him on every surface this year.

There is no drama, no sense of passing of the torch but just a savage overthrow of a king who after several hard fought years had taken over the throne from the old ruler.

The overthrow was sudden and there is no suspense in the battles between Djokovic and Nadal.

Nadal doesn't even look like the warrior who had endeared himself to millions with his spirited attempts to get the better of Federer on every surface.

Djokovic has many fans but nowhere near the numbers for Fedal. Nor does he have the kind of popularity which made Federer and Nadal legends of the sport.

What would be good for tennis as well as Djokovic would be to have a real battle on his hands.

Nadal has declared he now knows what he has to work on and promised a better showing in 2012.

But now he is 25, on the wrong side of his physical peak. At 17, he was still in the process of developing his game and we could expect him to constantly improve.

Can we expect that from Nadal at this relatively late age?

We cannot rule out this possibility because Nadal's game has indeed evolved constantly to conform to winning strategies against particular opponents or on particular surfaces.

So, until proved otherwise, I expect Nadal to challenge Djokovic next year and beat him sometime.

It is unlikely that Djokovic would be able to repeat this season.

While he may still have the edge over Nadal, he will not be able to maintain the intensity for one more season and is also likely to be challenged by Murray and Del Potro.

With so many talented players in the mix and Nadal known for his legendary ability to find solutions, 2012 will tell us more about Djokovic's true place in history and in the hearts of fans.

We will find out whether the Nadal-Djokovic rivalry can replace Fedal in popularity. Indeed, whether it is a true rivalry in the sense of providing suspense as to the outcome..

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