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The mother of all tennis rivalries today

The year 2011, which saw Novak’s ascendancy to the top of the world rankings for the first time in his career, gave birth to two of tennis’ most exciting rivalries. Before we got accustomed to them, however, this year a new one seems to have emerged, once again involving Djokovic. And this one looks to be even more promising and could very well go down as the mother of all rivalries in history if it continues for a few more years.

Right now, though the healthy duel between the Serb Novak Djokovic and the Scot Andy Murray has just started, we have seen enough matches between the two (most of them being very close ones) for us to pit this rivalry against other epic rivalries in tennis.

We have in fact three other rivalries which are on the run these days, thereby making the current era more competitive than all the past ones. So we have a total of four sets of rivalries to work with, before concluding which one of them is way ahead of the rest.

Roger FedererRafael Nadal:

Back in 2008, when Rafael Nadal started winning on surfaces other than clay, the entire world made the rivalry of the Spanish Armada with Roger Federer as their preferred choice, and the trend continued for three more years until a certain Novak Djokovic changed the scenario. It was almost as if only the Swiss and the Spaniard wielded tennis racquets, as fans all over the world snubbed the rest. But you can’t blame them for that.

The matches fought between them have been of high quality and most of them, barring a few, have been closely-contested affairs, though the head-to-head between the two paints a totally deceptive picture. Nadal might have won 18 of the 28 matches so far played between them, but it has to be said in Federer’s defense that 14 of those were played on clay, which is supposed to be the Spaniard’s favourite surface. The fact that both play with contrasting styles has made the battles look more interesting.

The Swiss ace attacks from the outset, attempting to push his adversary from one corner to the other in an effort to explore the possibility of hitting a forehand winner from the baseline. Nadal, on the other hand, frustrates Roger by his fetching abilities on the baseline which forces errors out of the latter’s racquet. Plus the forehand top spin of the Spaniard (supposed to be best in the business), when aimed at Federer’s backhand, spoils the day for the Swiss master.

This rivalry was at its peak for three years till the beginning of 2011 and though it looks a bit subdued now, we will be able to relish it, I believe, once Nadal is back from his sabbatical.

Roger Federer – Novak Djokovic:

Unlike against Nadal, Federer is marginally ahead in his head-to-head here. Out of the 28 matches played between them thus far, 16 have been won by the Swiss. Like Federer, Novak Djokovic also has all the required weapons to operate from the baseline, but has been a reluctant visitor to the net. The unmatched flamboyancy and the service games of Federer score over the Serb’s finesse on the court easily.

Djokovic, since his dream 2011, has dominated Roger in the same way that he has henpecked several others in the ATP tour, and it goes without saying that most of the victories for the Swiss have come prior to that. The admirable shot-making quality in matches played between these two qualifies this rivalry as one of the best in the modern era. However, as the matches between the two have not happened consistently at a stretch, this competition has failed to attract the attention of normal tennis watchers.

Novak Djokovic – Rafael Nadal:

If there is one rivalry which has successfully obliterated the “Fedal show” when it was on its high for three straight years, it is the “Rafole” rivalry It all began with Djoker’s famous 2011 where the Serb tamed the Spaniard in seven straight finals, the last one being the 2012 Aussie Open.

When it looked as though Nadal was unchallenged with respect to his sprinting skills and fetching abilities, the current world No.1 proved all of us wrong by matching his adversary in every possible way. So much so that at times, the Serb has even outrun the Spaniard, as was clearly evident from the statistics we saw after the marathon five set final in the Australian Open earlier this year.

Although Nole has won seven straight finals against his Spanish opponent, it did not take long for Nadal to reverse the trend. Rafa’s mental fortitude came to his rescue, and he scored three successive victories on clay this year over the Serb, which included his successive title defence at Roland Garros.

The immovable Djokovic of 2011 found out the Achilles’ heel in Nadal’s backhand and so adopted the strategy of attacking it in every rally with his big crosscourt forehand, thereby drawing errors out of his opponent. The Serb has developed his backhand down the line so well that it shook the game of the Spanish player, who again needed to counter it with his backhand which, like I said, has been his weaker area. But even then Rafa never relented easily and fought till his last breath, which made the Serb dig deep.

But this nightmarish experience was soon thwarted as the Spaniard reinvented his lost form and began his dominance over the Serb before shielding himself from active tennis for the last six months, owing to injury.

Andy Murray – Novak Djokovic:

It is now time for us to discuss the hottest rivalry which is prevailing at present – the one between the Scot and the Serb. If you take the Australian Open final this year out of the equation, the semifinal match at Melbourne Park between Andy Murray and Novak Djokovic has to be called the best match of the tournament. Though the world No. 1 won the battle then, Murray had the last laugh this year as far as Majors are concerned, when he squared things off by wrapping up a five setter final at the season’s last Grand Slam in New York.

The rivalry between the two has the potential to produce more such epics in the future, because both of them have a lot of things in common. Murray may be a marginally better server than Novak but with respect to return of serve, none scores over the other. That is why, probably, there were seven breaks of serve in the first set when they collided in the final of the Shanghai Masters.

They can run inexhaustibly on the baseline, staying there for hours together. There is not one profound weakness in their respective games. It looks as though we are in for the maximum sets whenever they wield racquets against each other. For some though, the heated exchanges at the baseline are not of high quality while for many, such battles give them their money’s worth. All said and done, tennis is going to be the winner whenever they compete henceforth, and I only hope my instincts serve me right.

Now it is time for me to rate the rivalries and name the mother of all rivalries. Without further ado, let me run through the rankings, briefing the rationale behind doing it.

1. Andy Murray vs Novak Djokovic:

Rationale: Same age and similar styles, more close matches, unrelenting baseline slugfests and competitive H to H.

2. Roger Federer vs Rafael Nadal:

Rationale: Long lasting quality, contrasting styles, close matches, played more on clay.

3. Novak Djokovic vs Rafael Nadal:

Rationale: Unrelenting baseline slugfests, less close matches than those between Murray and Nole, predictable results based on players’ form.

4. Novak Djokovic vs Roger Federer:

Rationale: Inconsistent meetings, so long has been under the shadow of the Nole-Nadal rivalry.

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