A Substitute for War

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On Nadal-Djokovic vs the Great Rivalries

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I’m a big fan of Peter Bodo‘s tennis analysis, but today he wrote something that makes me get up on my soapbox. On the plus side, he also forces  to try to make a definitive statement about what makes a rivalry great. Here’s the upshot of what he said:

Not that Federer-Rafael Nadal hasn’t been terrific — it only produced, among other things, that Wimbledon final of 2008, nominated by many as the greatest tennis match of all time. But the feeling grows that the real, defining rivalry of this generation will be the one between Nadal and Novak Djokovic.

He goes on to liken the Nadal-Djokovic rivalry to McEnroe-Lendl. This is interesting because it’s a pretty good analogy, and yet when I consider John McEnroe‘s great rivals, I think about Bjorn Borg and Jimmy Connors before I think of Ivan Lendl. The fact that he’s got the analogy right means that my real beef with Bodo is based on us valuing rivalries differently.

Obviously there’s more to a rivalry than any one set of numbers can tell you, but for me the rivalry really only becomes important enough to start throwing around phrases like “defining rivalry of this generation” when it starts determining who wins the big tournaments. As such, here’s a table of various rivalries, and how they’ve done in Grand Slam Finals:

I think we need to appreciate just how often Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal met with everything on the line. To meet 7 times is huge. In men’s tennis, you have to go back to the pre-Open era to surpass that total. Just throwing the women’s rivalries in there to keep some perspective also. Men’s rivalries typically aren’t played as much as women’s rivalries because the men can’t reliably get to the finals as well. If you and your opponent can’t get to the final, then if you truly are the two best players in the world on average: You won’t play each other.

At the bottom of the list of course is the currently hyped Nadal-Djokovic rivalry. They’ve played for all the marbles one time at a major. How on Earth can you say that rivalry is pointed to become more important than Federer-Nadal just by looking at the numbers?

Now add in: Those Federer-Nadal matchups tended to occur at Roland Garros, with Federer trying to complete a Calendar Grand Slam against possibly the greatest clay courter in history. And the 4 matches of this stature between the two of them not at the French, all of them went to at least 4 sets. Three of them went to 5 sets, and one of them is considered by many to be the single greatest match in tennis history.

Who knows what the future holds? Maybe Nadal-Djokovic will start playing in every final and amass as a history that, well, rivals Federer-Nadal. As of now though, saying we aren’t in the ballpark of that is a massive understatement. Chew on this: Nadal-Djokovic hasn’t happened in Grand Slam finals any more than Richard Krajicek and MaliVai Washington.

So what’s leading Bodo to the conclusions he’s reached? Well he talks about quantity of matches.

Nadal and Djokovic have already played 26 times (Nadal leads, 16-10), even though Nadal is just 24 and Djokovic still 23 (almost a full year younger). When Mac and Ivan were about 25, they were right around 20 matches, evenly split. Nadal and Djokovic are on track to play significantly more matches than did they did. We could be looking at a 50-match rivalry here, all other things being equal.

By contrast Federer and Nadal have only met 24 times. Did you catch that, Nadal has already played Djokovic more than he’s played Federer. Is that an indication of a tendency toward a better rivalry? I don’t think so. Nadal played Djokovic more because for most of their rivalry, Nadal and Federer have been the top 2 seeds and thus could not play before the finals. Punishing a rivalry because the two guys involved are too good makes no sense at all.

And in fact the very reason people are talking so much of the Nadal-Djokovic rivalry now (they’ve become the two best players in the world) is probably the very same reason we’ll see them play less total matches against each other from this point on.

Last, something that seems undeniable is that Bodo’s perception of rivalries is shaped by how evenly matched it feels, and it’s something that I try to rebut every chance I get:

He’s 2-8 in his past 10 matches with Nadal, and that winning percentage is bound to decline further as Federer continues to slow down. The least talked-about factor in all this is the difference in age. With nearly five years (or if you prefer, half a tennis career) on Nadal, Federer enjoyed a huge advantage early in the rivalry, but has paid a heavy price at the back end.

Now look, obviously it’s only a great rivalry is both sides have a chance at winning. Parity between the two partners in a rivalry is worth something. However, both when you evaluate the players involved in the rivalry, and the rivalry itself, you’ve got to factor in when and where those match ups took place.

Federer absolutely did not enjoy a huge advantage early on in the rivalry, because early on in the rivalry the two pretty much only met on clay. Federer would have enjoyed that huge advantage had Nadal been a better player on other surfaces, but instead Nadal lost early, and people have been wrongly punishing Federer for Nadal’s failure ever since.

Of course the fact that the Federer-Nadal rivalry disproportionately took place on clay could be used as a legit knock on the rivalry itself, but then you’ve got to go back think about what those matches meant. The best clay court matches you’ll ever see, with tennis’ ultimate peak achievement on the line, and those weren’t even the highlight of their rivalry.

It’s wonderful that Novak Djokovic has finally taken that next step forward as Federer starts to sunset, but let us not denigrate what we had this past half-decade. Federer-Nadal was and is the best men’s rivalry of the Open Era, and it’s going to take an awful lot to unseat it.

15 Responses

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  1. Maybe just showing my callow youth, but I thought of Lendl first. Possibly also because they were such obvious contrasts.

    But whenb they talk about great rivalries in Tennis, they’re not just talking about head to head. As your little table shows, they’re actually not that frequent. No, what they’re talking about is overlapping primes. Two players, at the peak of their powers, contending for the same title.

    There’s the perception that the Fed was VERY SLIGHTLY on the downside when Rafa arrived as a player, meaning that the period of genuine rivalry was relatively short. The Djoker OTOH, is asserting himself quite early with the (apparent) potential for a long rivalry.

    Clay is (IMO) one of the things that stops Tennis from becoming a totally even, comparable game, as there are hard tactical differences that are specific to that surface. Great players have failed to conquer Roland Garos. And that’s a good thing. Hell, I still regret that we’ve only one open played on grass.

    As an aside, I hadn’t realised that Chris Evert had reached that many GS finals. A pity she had to run into the Kareem Abdul-Jabbar of Tennis in so many of them 😉


    May 13, 2011 at 4:42 pm

  2. Interesting you thought of Lendl first. See the thing about McEnroe-Lendl is that it didn’t really have a great peak overlap, which is why they didn’t play in the finals that much. Lendl hit his prime in 1984, Mac exited his after 1985, and so the two never played for a major except in those 2 years. They played a lot yet, mostly when at least one of them wasn’t a real threat to do something great.

    Like your point about clay, and I’ll extend it to surfaces in general. It part of what makes the sport so fascinating that players actually have show great versatility in order to when all the time.

    Re: Evert. You may actually still not realize how amazing she was, and it has everything to do with people judging rivalries incorrectly. Martina only has the overall edge 43-37, despite the fact that they played disproportionate amount of time when she had the edge over Evert. Like Nadal, if Martina had been better earlier, Evert wins the head-to-head record.

    Now consider that if you look at major wins, finals, and semis, Evert appears to have the superior career over Martina even though she skipped a lot of majors in the 70s (because they weren’t considered as important then). Had Evert actually tried to maximize here grand slam totals, she would have slaughtered everyone in history.

    Yet, she doesn’t get talked about in GOAT conversations because it’s considered a given that Navratilova was better. It ain’t right.

    Last note: Djoker just beat Nadal again. Doesn’t change my feeling about people jumping the gun on the rivarly, but dude deserves a follow up post. If he beats Nadal he’ll be in on his way to serious contention for his 2011 being the best year in tennis history (something Nadal doesn’t even belong in the conversation for). Stunning turn of events.

    Matt Johnson

    May 15, 2011 at 1:24 pm

    • I suppose the thing about Martina was how she dominated doubles and mixed doubles as well (a feat unheard of today). But your point absolutely holds.


      May 15, 2011 at 5:41 pm

      • Ah, the doubles thing is tough. I personally think doubles tennis is a superior game to singles. Fantastically entertaining…but it’s not where the greats have traditionally earned their prestige.

        Give comparable weight to doubles, and Martina becomes the clear women’s GOAT, while John McEnroe probably becomes the men’s GOAT.

        Matt Johnson

        May 15, 2011 at 5:47 pm

    • Time for part 2 of this article?


      July 3, 2011 at 3:48 pm

  3. I love tennis.

    Rafa and the Djoker aren’t anywhere near the great tennis rivalries yet, but I don’t have any problem with Bodo suggesting that they could be. To me, it’s similar to someone suggesting that LeBron vs Durant could be the defining rivalry for the next generation of basketball. It hasn’t happened yet, and in fact neither team has even earned their way to this year’s Finals yet, but we all see that it could happen very soon and with the way their early careers have played out a generational rivalry is certainly on the list of possibilities…maybe even probabilities.

    That said, I’m not sure that the Rafa/Djoker one will play out for a different reason…yes, they are only a year apart, but Rafa’s uber-physical style has already given hints that his body won’t be able to take it long term. He’s a HARD 24 years old, already with a resume that could stand easily as a career. Djoker’s been a second-tier contender for awhile, but he doesn’t have nearly the mileage or the punishing style. I could very easily see Djoker as the standard for the next generation, possibly forming more of a rivalry with Andy Murray in the next couple of years until the next wave of phenoms hit the scenes with Rafa fading out not so long after Fed. I’m more of a Rafa fan, so I hope that doesn’t happen, but again it’s not a stretch at all to think that it could…


    May 16, 2011 at 7:44 am

  4. And while I’m here, as you guys pointed out with the surfaces, I am a big proponent of styles making the fight. And I see your points about Fed’s advantages on other surfaces in Rafa’s early career and how their H2H records might be different if Rafa could have made the other Finals. That said, I’m not really convinced that’s a strong argument for Fed over him.

    Because as much as any other sport…much like boxing, actually…in tennis when the game calibers are similar it really does seem to become more about the “intangibles” like will and being able to put pressure on your opponent and being ABLE to respond to pressure from your opponent…and in the majority of their match-ups, that is one area that Rafa has always seemed to have an advantage over Fed H2H. Against anyone else, on a big point Fed always knew he could just take his game up to a level they couldn’t reach which seemed to help with his confidence and let him always win the big tie-breakers or hit the big shots…against them.

    But against Rafa? Even if it was on clay early on, if anything that just served as a game-equalizer. It meant that neither of them could just score an easy TKO over the other, that it became a marathon and grind that was as much mental as physical. And against someone that he couldn’t just turn up the heat and physically overwhelm, Fed blinked. Almost always. Though Rafa was always gracious and Fed always determined, it became clear (to me, anyway) that both of them knew who was likely to win whenever they faced off. Very similar to how, a generation before, the reverse happened…Sampras (the big hitter with the more impressive resume) was both better AND had the mental edge on Agassi. They both knew, coming in, that Sampras was better when they faced off. I think Rafa and Roger reached the same point.

    And I believe that this, more than anything else, was what allowed Rafa to overcome Fed even at Wimbledon. Even at that stage of their careers, Fed still had more weapons on grass and should have been a better grass player, but physically Rafa closed the gap and mentally he was the stronger of the two. And that’s why he won. At least in my opinion.


    May 16, 2011 at 8:00 am

    • I’m always amazed that it seems like every basketball fan I enjoy talking to is also a tennis fan. This is not a combination I would have expected.

      Love that you made the connection to boxing. The direct war with an opponent in tennis is really only surpassed by combat sports, and this is a big part of why will is such a big factor.

      I’ll go with you that Nadal’s will is amazing. I consider him to be a prodigy when it comes to that. With that said, I think people get really carried away about what this means. The two have played 5 sets 5 times, Nadal’s only won 3 of those time. So it’s certainly not the case that whenever a match is close, it goes to Nadal.

      And it’s hard to overstate how mind blowingly disproportionate their surface play is. For any rivalry to take place more on clay than the other surfaces combined is pretty ridiculous.

      Just for comparisons sake:
      Federer & Nadal have played 13 times on clay.
      Djokovic & Nadal have played 12 times on clay.
      Federer & Djokovic have played 3 times on clay.

      Federer & Djokovic have been the 2nd & 3rd most successful clay court players of the past 7 years, and they’ve only played a small fraction of the their matches on clay because 1) clay is secondary surface, and 2) Nadal has been so dominant on it.

      Rafa’s dominance on clay combined with his tendency to lose early and often to lower tier players on hard court has skewed all of his rivalries to extreme levels and which undoubtedly has contributed to the notion that he “owns” the other top tier players in rivalries.

      Matt Johnson

      May 16, 2011 at 10:17 am

      • Again, I see your point, but I’m just not sure it’s that convincing to me. I don’t feel that Rafa owned Fed, per se, for the reasons that you said. That said, I do feel like given similar points in their athletic peaks, in a H2H match, I would pick Rafa more times than Fed to win. Yes, Fed would be relatively more successful on the hard courts and I’d pick peak Fed over peak Rafa in the US Open, for instance.

        But in this hypothetical “peak” grand slams tournament, I think Rafa would end up having more wins overall. In this (completely unscientific, completely subjective) exercise, let’s say at their peaks the play head-to-head in every major 10 times, I’d see it playing out something like:

        Australian: Fed 6-4

        French: Rafa 10 – 0 (maybe 9-1, but I think a sweep more likely)

        Wimbledon: Rafa 6 – 4

        US Open: Fed 7 – 3

        I guess my point is, at each of their bests, Roger’s game is better suited to the hard courts than Rafa’s (obvious) and a bit better on the current iteration of Wimbledon’s grass while Rafa’s is better suited to clay. The US and French Opens are the two extremes for their games. But when you factor in the other aspects of the game besides technique, I think Rafa would find ways to win on Fed’s extreme surface at least a few times whereas I’m not sure that a peak Fed would ever beat a peak Rafa at Roland Garos outside of some kind of fluke. And in the two middle surfaces, I think Rafa would find ways to either minimize Fed’s advantages or else outright overcome them as often as not.

        We can only project what we think would happen based on what we suspect, which includes all of our biases and shortcomings in addition to our “expertise”, and on what the results looked like at other points when there really was overlap. So it’s not perfect. But while I would never say that Rafa dominated Federer, I do think that he was just better than him when they stood across from each other. Which can lead to very interesting discussions on where they should place on All Time lists.


        May 16, 2011 at 10:58 am

  5. Missed this article before, it’s a good one

    Agree that I don’t consider Nadal Djokovic a big rivarly yet at all. Djokovic still needs to do a lot more for me to put him near Fed or Rafa (which of course is easier to say after his streak got snapped). They need to be 1 2 for a number of years after this with a ton of Finals. I don’t see him getting within a country’s diameter of Nadal and Federer historically if he’s sitting at 3-5 majors and they have like 15 and 18 each. He needs like 10…


    June 4, 2011 at 6:12 pm

  6. I don’t agree with Fed losing that Wimbledon because of not being as mentally strong as Nadal. I think Fed was past his prime at that point and Nadal’s spin and leftyness has always made him a the prototype to beat Federer. Djokovic is the guy I don’t think is as mentally strong as those two are.


    June 4, 2011 at 6:15 pm

    • The thing is, Fed aged like Karl Malone. When exactly did his “prime” end? How do we define it? If we go by when he was winning everything that could be a bit misleading, since that makes the assumption that the only way Rafa would beat Fed is if he was no longer at his peak. But that’s not necessarily true. Even up to today, Fed beats everyone else and only really loses to Rafa (and now Djoker).

      Rafa finally overcame Fed at Wimbledon in 2008. From the French of ’08 to the US Open of ’09, Fed played in the finals of all 7 majors consecutively and won 3 of them. The only reason he didn’t win 6/7 is because Rafa beat him 3 of those times (del Potro snuck him in that last US Open). I’m just not convinced that you can make that strong of an argument that Fed was past his prime when, were it not for Nadal, he very easily wins 6 majors in a row.


      June 5, 2011 at 1:19 pm

      • It’s a good point. People have a strange tendency to think that Fed is running in place while Rafa and now Novak pass him simply because he’s still so damn good.

        I think people should focus more on W-L records, and specific to whom players lost to and in what context. At his peak in 2006, Federer only lost to 2 players all year. He hasn’t been anything like that for years.

        Matt Johnson

        June 8, 2011 at 9:28 pm

  7. […] On Nadal-Djokovic vs the Great Rivalries (asubstituteforwar.com) […]

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