The upcoming match marks the thirtieth time the two have met, and each time previous has made for must-see-TV. Between the two, they’ve shared the longest match in an event and account for seven Grand Slam titles, and that’s in just the past two years. The rivalry itself was ranked third greatest of all-time by ATPWorldTour.com.
Is there any pair in sports who consistently does it better, time after time, than these two? You’d be hard-pressed to find it.
Before you go saying Nadal versus Federer makes for a better rivalry — which no one can dispute hasn’t been the best to this point — you have to think about the fact that with both Djokovic and Nadal barely in their mid-twenties, their best may be yet to come.
It’s easy to bring up rivalries from the past within the broad range of sports also: Magic versus Bird, Ali versus Frazier, Arnold Palmer versus Jack Nicklaus, Tyson versus Holyfield or even Tiger Woods versus Phil Mickelson. But those were then and this is now. It’s a new era where the young guys grow increasingly dominant in their chosen realm. It’s also an era — one where rivalries that are over-hyped and blown way out of proportion are considered normal — and actual rivalries are few and far between.
Kobe Bryant and LeBron James, who have only faced each other in regular-season
matches, have played largely without anything of substance on the line besides bragging rights. They don’t compare either. And while it’s easy to point out that tennismakes it easier to compete for multiple championships every year, thereby making opportunities to develop rivalries plentiful, the same can be said for Kobe and LeBron. Magic and Bird managed to face each other in the NBA Finals three times. Why can’t they?
In the NFL there’s Peyton Manning and Tom Brady, which actually may be the closest we have to compare. But even that one doesn’t compare either. It’s no secret that there’s definitely no love lost between those two, and their clashes have been as epic as they’ve been legendary. But that gambit has been run mostly by Brady, and with Manning’s career now in jeopardy, may fall apart altogether. And don’t even think about bringing up little brother Eli and Brady as a comparison — at least not yet.
What those lack in substance, the meat and potatoes of principal, as in, say, championships, is what this one possesses. Other rivalries of today don’t even come close.
The one between Nadal and Djokovic started off so slow no one could have foreseen it becoming what it is today.
Their first match in 2006 was hardly even a contest. It pitted an 18-year-old Serbian kid against a player, who though only one year his elder, had already been competing professionally for four years, won a Grand Slam and been ranked the world’s No. 2. They didn’t even meet in a Grand Slam event, final or otherwise, until 2007, a whole five years into Rafa’s career. It was only Djokovic’s second year by then, and he never stood a chance.
But since then, Djokovic has come roaring back, and in doing so has demanded, and earned the right, to be considered amongst the discussion of tennis greats.
By tallying nine wins to Nadal’s six since 2009, he’s done just that. Remember those championships? This rivalry has them.
They’ve met in the finals of Grand Slam events three times since 2011. Sunday marks the fourth time in just two years. And oh, by the way, the skinny Serbian they call Nole has won two of those to Rafa’s one.
This rivalry has all the makings to be one of the great ones and is gaining steam quickly. Already it’s been more back and forth recently than any other comparative rivalry in sports. And when the two meet Sunday, it’ll be to compose another chapter in their storied competitive series.
Move over Bird and Magic, you have company.