On Nadal-Djokovic vs the Great Rivalries
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.