PARIS – After all those Grand Slam finals between Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal, a record eight in all, there’s a new tantalizing tennis rivalry.
This one, between Nadal and Novak Djokovic, offers the added benefit of being more competitive.
Given the participants’ ages, it should last some time.
Nadal and Djokovic played each other to decide the titles at each of the past four Grand Slam tournaments, most recently the French Open, where Nadal won a two-day, rain-interrupted final 6-4, 6-3, 2-6, 7-5.
No one should be surprised if they make that five in a row in less than a month at Wimbledon.
Which would be remarkable, considering that before these two came along, no pair of men had met in more than two consecutive major finals since the start of the Open era in 1968. Not Borg and McEnroe. Not Sampras and Agassi. Not even Federer and Nadal.
“We are very young, and we played over 30 times against each other,” said Djokovic, who trails 19-14 overall in their series, “and hopefully we can have many more battles in the next years.”
The No. 1-ranked Djokovic turned 25 last month; No. 2 Nadal is barely a week past his 26th birthday.
They’ve already accumulated more head-to-head meetings than Nadal and the 30-year-old Federer (Nadal leads 18-10), and are gaining in the Grand Slam final department (Nadal leads Federer 6-2; Djokovic leads Nadal 3-2).
They’re probably the sport’s two best returners of serve, two best movers and two best retrievers of opponents’ shots. They’re also capable of switching from defense to offense in a blink as well or better than anyone.
Seven-time major champion Mats Wilander pointed to the puzzle of the top three men in the sport, Djokovic, Nadal and the No. 3-ranked Federer, a trio that has combined to win 28 of the past 29 Grand Slam titles dating to 2005. (Juan Martin del Potro beat Federer in the 2009 U.S. Open final.)
Nadal always seems to have the edge over Federer. Until recently, Federer had the edge over Djokovic, who beat the Swiss star in the U.S. Open semifinals in September and the French Open semifinals last week. For a stretch of seven consecutive wins that began in 2011 and was capped by the 2012 Australian Open final Djokovic had the edge over Nadal.
“If you’re going to build a player that’s going to trouble Roger Federer on every surface, you build Nadal. And if you’re going to build a player that’s going to trouble Nadal, you build Robin Soderling with the movement of Novak Djokovic. And suddenly, Novak Djokovic at No. 1 is hitting the ball like Soderling, but he moves like Novak,” Wilander said. “So it’s amazing how they all fit each other really badly.”
Nadal, beaten by Djokovic in London, New York and Melbourne, avoided becoming the first man to lose four straight major finals.
“For us, it was very important to win here against Djokovic, because a fourth Grand Slam loss would have been ugly,” said Toni Nadal, Rafael’s uncle and coach.
Nadal already owns 11 Grand Slam titles, Djokovic five. Put those numbers together, and you get Federer’s 16, the record.
The question isn’t whether Nadal and Djokovic will continue to add to their totals.
The question is how many more times they will do it at the other’s expense.