Djokovic, Nadal building superb Grand Slam rivalry

After all of 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.

And given the participants’ ages, it should last a while.

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’s time 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).

If they do meet again at Wimbledon next month or the U.S. Open

in September, there will be those who will wonder whether Nadal’s

current three-match winning streak against Djokovic – at Monte

Carlo, Rome and Paris, all on red clay – says much about who has

the upper hand in general at the moment.

It might just reflect superiority on one particular surface.

”I don’t think (Nadal) necessarily still has the answers. I

think he fights through this match, and it’s clay, and he’s

confident, and he wins the key points there toward the end,”

seven-time major champion Mats Wilander said after presenting Nadal

with the trophy at Roland Garros on Monday.

Right now, there’s such a tiny sliver separating Djokovic and

Nadal.

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. In the French Open final, they played

more than 60 points that lasted 10 strokes or more – lengthy,

complicated exchanges that resulted not from conservative,

keep-the-ball-in-play tennis, but rather an extraordinary ability

to force the other to come up with the goods over and over – and

each won more than 30.

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 (the exception: 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. And for a stretch of seven consecutive wins

that began in 2011 and was capped by the 2012 Australian Open final

– a 5-hour, 53-minute epic – 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. The one big thing is Novak has now

maybe turned the corner on Federer completely after here. … He’s

the one to beat (at Wimbledon) – Novak is still the one to beat,

for sure.”

Djokovic had won 27 consecutive Grand Slam matches until his

setback against Nadal in Paris, falling one win short of becoming

the first man since Rod Laver in 1969 to win four straight major

titles. 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.

Now they start over at Wimbledon, where play begins June 25.

Before opening the defense of his first title at the All England

Club, Djokovic will rest – he’s taking this week off.

Nadal isn’t wasting any time getting ready to move from clay to

grass courts, flying Tuesday to Germany, where he’s entered in a

tournament on the green turf. His schedule provides no downtime:

travel Tuesday morning, practice on grass Tuesday afternoon,

doubles match Wednesday, singles match Thursday.

”That’s the calendar,” he said. ”The calendar says we only

have this period of time on clay, and I don’t have more chances to

play on clay.”

Don’t feel too sorry for him. Sure, Nadal is the undisputed King

of Clay, owner of a record seven French Open titles. But he also

already owns two Wimbledon championships, in addition to three

runner-up finishes there – against Federer in 2006 and 2007, and

against Djokovic last year.

Nadal already has 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.

Howard Fendrich covers tennis for The Associated Press. He can

be reached at hfendrich(at)ap.org or

http://twitter.com/HowardFendrich