Wednesday, 10 August 2011

Nadal & Djokovic - A Different Kind Of Rivalry

The rivalry between Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal, when it was just about the two of them in men's tennis, may have been the most civilized, friendly one in tennis history.

The developing duel between Nadal and Novak Djokovic, whose first match as the No. 1 player in the world will happen at the Rogers Cup, just may have a little more edge.

The chemistry among the combatants couldn't be more different.

Federer and Nadal always seemed as comfortable together as an old married couple.

Nadal and Djokovic could be more like oil and water.

And with the players on both the men's and women's tours are being so nicey-nicey with each other these days, a little fire and brimstone will be most welcome.

The dynamic of the Federer-Nadal relationship was set early, as Nadal spent the early part of his career looking up in the rankings at the player he considers to be the greatest of all time.

Even after Nadal caught up and eventually passed Federer, they always seemed like Jedi and Jedi master regardless of what was happening on court. Federer seem to relish the role of the master; Nadal seemed just fine as his apprentice.

This week, Nadal said that despite the fact that they're very different people, one big thing they have in common is their sense of fair play, the way whatever happened on court never affected what went on outside the court.

They've had a fascinating road together, and that shared history is the fuel that nurtures the relationship.

They're hardly best friends, but competing work colleagues who have tremendous respect for the fight.

With Nadal and Djokovic, it's a totally different story.

It's like the Serb is the Darth Vader in this screenplay.

For one thing, they're peers — just a year apart, even though Nadal was more precocious in his rise to the top of the game. For another, Djokovic doesn't seem to have had any idols, anyone he looked up or tried to emulate to as he rose through the ranks.

Then again, he didn't have just one player to chase; he had two. It wasn't the player he was chasing, but the peak.

When asked this week what his relationship with Djokovic was like, compared to his relationship with Federer, Nadal's answer was long on Federer, short on Djokovic. It's not that he doesn't like him; it's hard to imagine Nadal disliking anyone. Basically it was this: he has no problem with Djokovic. He's a good guy. He's had an incredible season. And that was about it.

To be fair, Djokovic has beaten him like a drum in 2011, on every surface. He's probably in Nadal's head much the way Nadal himself got into Federer's head, when he started dominating their rivalry.

But the little clues are in the subtle moments.

After the French Open final, Federer and Nadal stood together for all the obligatory photo opportunities with the trophies. They chatted amiably, as they so often have after Grand Slam finals, regardless of the outcome.

And the drama after the 2009 Australian Open final, with Federer's tears and Nadal's comforting gesture, will remain one of their defining moments. When Federer left the stage in Paris to give Nadal his solo time with the big trophy, he gave him a gentle pat on the butt, and a smile, as he exited.

"This is your time, kid," it seemed to say.

It was a small gesture that spoke volumes.

At the Wimbledon final, it was Nadal and Djokovic who stood there.

It was professional, workmanlike, and positively devoid of any warmth even though Nadal said all the appropriate things when he took the microphone to utter a few words of congratulations.

No doubt he was bitterly disappointed after the defeat; but he has lost Grand Slam finals before. And no doubt he had concerns about the foot problem that forced him to take more than three weeks off after Wimbledon. But the coolness was remarkable just the same.

The two didn't exchange five words; they were like two strangers up there.

It was similarly businesslike at the hit-and-giggle held last weekend to inaugurate the rooftop Har-Tru courts at Uniprix Stadium.

The two arrived separately, hit tennis balls for a few minutes, posed for the obligatory photos together — the crowd-loving Djokovic smiling broadly, Nadal looking a little tired and rather grim — and exited separately. None of this is meant as criticism; no one has done anything wrong here. And it's totally okay if they don't love each other. It's just that it's so different. And the potential for this rivalry to get a little heated is delectable.

The best part of it is that because it will be so different, it will never have to suffer in comparison to Federer-Nadal. It will stand on its own; the two can create their own storied history as we await the next chapter — hopefully in Sunday's final.

And somehow, you get the feeling the old Jedi Master still will have something to say about it before he's done.

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