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The ‘Federer-Djokovic-Nadal’ rivalry

Vineet Ramakrishnan

Think of your favourite Marvel comic characters and read these names -- Novak Djokovic, Rafael Nadal and Roger Federer . Currently, they would be the closest to the fictional icons in real life. Watching the quirky Djoker at work, the Spanish Matador rampaging and the Majestic FedEx reigning supreme is like reading a Marvel strip – you just can’t put the script down.

Sports is a never ending cycle of domination, be it the Yankees or the Red Sox, Boston Celtics or Lakers, legacy is forged through prolonged period of brilliance. The fearsome West Indies of the 80s and the ruthless Aussies of the 2000s are all but the same with their own brand of ascendancy and preponderance.

But, if a team’s despotism during a certain era can be termed as marvellous or astonishing, what of the individuals of the sport? Not the Michael Jordans, Babe Ruths, 4-horseman of the apocalypse (Holding, Croft, Roberts, Garner) or the Messis or the Xavis, but sportspersons of individual sports. Gary Kasparov, Carl Lewis, Michael Phelps, Nadia Comaneci, Lance Armstrong, Michael Schumacher, Mohammad Ali, Billie Jean King – the list goes on and these are only so few of so many. One could pour in all kinds of adjectives and descriptions for all these legends.

‘Sports is human life in microcosm’, and in a way these individuals have portrayed it in the best way possible. A human life embodies the commitment, struggle, pain, loss, triumph, jubilation and all other possible emotions. But, there is one inborn virtue which validates the phrase ‘Sports is human life in microcosm’, and that is the sense of rivalry.

Sports thrive on rivalry, so does a human life. Interestingly enough, isn’t survival just another fancy word for rivalry? Jimmy Connors-John McEnroe, Jake LaMotta-Sugar Ray Robinson, Chris Evert-Martina Navratilova, Pete Sampras -Andre Agassi, Tiger Woods-Phil Mickelson, Arnold Palmer -Jack Nicklaus Mohammad Ali -Joe Frazier – and again, the list will just go on. However, there is one rivalry which is fast ascending to the bracket of being legendary, the triple-lock between Novak Djokovic, Rafael Nadal and Roger Federer.

Premature, you would say, but on what basis? One would argue that the rivalry has not attained the epic propositions that Ali – Frazier bouts (The Fight of the Century and The Thrilla in Manila) did. One might put forth a counter of longevity – fair enough. However, the stage seems set for this rivalry to make it big. If Federer’s dominance was clinical; Rafael Nadal was a brutal contender. Then, when Rafa’s ascendancy was ruthless, Federer had his poker-face for the challenge. They played a record breaking 19 finals and during the course of that too, the Wimbledon 2008 final, ‘The Greatest Match Ever’.

Rafael Nadal at 25, has the numbers in his favour with a win record of 18-9 against Roger Federer; even Nadal would know that none of those wins were easy. ‘Sports do not build character. They reveal it’, and for both Rafa and FedEx, tennis did build their characters but their rivalry revealed it. Much has been talked about their playing styles, their talents, their skills. No one fathomed to believe there would be anyone who would come close to these two, let alone topple them. No one was in sight who could outlast Rafael Nadal; no one was in sight who could match up to the proficiency of Roger Federer.

Not buckling under the odds, Novak Djokovic did the unfathomable. 2011 was the year of the Djoker. He outlasted Rafa at the US Open finals after he had beaten Federer in his own game in the semi-finals -- and if, this year’s Australian Open is anything to go by, Djoker might as well have the last laugh in 2012 too. Adding the third dimension, Djokovic has become the central figure in what could be the biggest sports rivalry of all time. This is one contest that has broken the barrier of achieving a human feat.

Each serve, each return, each point won or lost seem to be a superhuman feat. Rafael Nadal’s swirling forehands are known to fly past like bullets. Federer’s whiplashing backhands are nothing but precision personified. Yet, when Rafa executes that soul crushing forehand after 5 hours and 24 shot rally, you are amazed. Yet, when Fedex faces a match point against his name, he nonchalantly goes crosscourt and accomplishes the backhand, you are astounded.

Both Rafa and FedEx played the above mentioned shots against a certain Novak Djokovic (Rafa at 2012 Aus Open and Federer at 2011 US Open) and thus were denied a point. Djokovic, again after 5 hours and 24 shots rally, returned that Nadal forehand and all who were amazed earlier were probably dumbfounded. Same had happened with Roger, on match point Djokovic got a tough crosscourt backhand from Roger and he stretched to his limit to connect the ball and put it down the line; people who were astounded earlier were probably flabbergasted.

The semi-finals of the Australian Open were worthy enough to be the finals itself. As if playing the best of three finals, Andy Murray and Roger Federer lived up to their billing of the 4th and 3rd seeds respectively, only to be edged past by the best of the best and when the best of the best collided there were no losers -- the only winner was the sport, Tennis.