Since Fed is already aging and Nadal is still a mystery (also their rivalry seems stagnated) and Nole and Murray seem to have entered their peaks at once... will this rivalry be the next best thing? Do you think Fedal is over? How much time left has the Rafole rivalry? Will these two come back and dominate the tour like they did in 2011 once Rafa is healthy? Discuss.
But first some food for thought...
NEWS & ANALYSIS
The Nole and Andy Show
Steve TignorSunday, October 14, 2012
Is it time, after their go-the-distance finales at the U.S. Open and Shanghai, to start thinking of Novak Djokovic vs. Andy Murray as the next great tennis rivalry? It may already be the best matchup of 2012: The Scot and the Serb have played five times, and they've split two five-setters at Grand Slams. But there are a few technicalities that would argue against making them the game’s two-man show of the future just yet.
First, it’s hardly a "new” duel: Murray and Djokovic, who were born a week apart in 1987, have known each other since their were juniors and have now played 16 times, starting back in 2006.
Second, it’s still too early to talk about the demise of two other great men’s rivalries, Federer-Nadal and Nadal-Djokovic. I can remember hearing talk of Roger’s and Rafa’s possible decline as far back as 2008, when they were both beaten badly in the semifinals at the Australian Open—it turned out, of course, that their long-running battle hadn’t even reached its peak by that point. As for Nadal vs. Djokovic, if Rafa comes back at full strength in 2013, by the middle of the season those two could be monopolizing the game’s biggest finals once again.
Still, it’s clear that we’re going to see Murray and Djokovic, who seem to be entering their primes together, play for many more big titles. With Nole’s Sunday Shanghai surprise over Muzz in mind, here are a few thoughts on how their rivalry might compare to others of recent vintage.
When Nadal plays Federer, it has always been Rafa who has been able to stay in his comfort zone and keep his tactics simple—essentially, he knows he can win by putting his strength, his forehand, against Federer’s weakness, his backhand. But the tables were turned on Nadal when he faced Djokovic in 2011. In those matches, it was Djokovic, with his airtight strokes from both sides, who could sit back and rally, while Nadal had to be more aggressive than normal.
At the start of this season, it seemed that Murray would also need to be more aggressive to beat Djokovic. That’s what he did in the Australian semis, and while he lost the match 7-5 in the fifth, it felt like a breakthrough. But in the U.S. Open final, and in the first set in Shanghai, Murray had more success drifting back into his customary defensive posture and making Djokovic to do the attacking and creating. Both times Djokovic was forced to raise his game. Both times he did, but only once was it enough. On Sunday, it was Murray’s outstanding defense at the end of the first set that drove Djokovic bananas and finally led to his epic racquet destruction.
Federer and Nadal have the benefit of being opposites, at least on the surface, in personality and playing style. The appeal of Nadal vs. Djokovic is the toe-to-toe physicality (not “brutality”) they bring to the court together. Djokovic and Murray are more similar than either of those two pairs—they come from exactly the same time period in the game's evolution.
Together they turn the modern men’s game, and its traditional weapons, inside out. Rather than relying on their serves and forehands, they’re better known for their returns and backhands. They win not by so much by attacking, but by playing aggressive defense. This means they break each other’s serve often; there were five breaks in the first six games in Shanghai. Normally we think of multi-break sets as a sign of bad tennis, but that may have to be revised if the Murray-Djokovic Era comes to pass. (We also might also have to stop criticizing the women for doing the same.)
Djokovic and Murray matches typically have plenty of long, spectacular, exhausting all-court rallies that reach one peak period of brilliance (the fourth set at the Open; the latter part of the second set on Sunday). Their matches can also, in part because of the breaks of serve and the lack of easy points, have an up and down, herky-jerky, little-bit-of-everything quality, in which momentum trades hands from one game to the next and neither player gets on a roll for long. Their matches also tend to take a long time. My DVR ran out of space in the middle of their epic on Sunday; that’s impressive for a three-setter. Time between points will continue to be an issue with these two. At one stage, each of them was taking an average of more than 30 seconds before serving, 5 seconds over the limit.
Nobody would mistake Djokovic’s showman’s spirit for Murray’s square-lipped self-laceration, but they have their similarities in the personality department as well. Neither hides his negative feelings or his vulnerability. Djokovic often seems to have to conquer his inner pessimist, while Murray appears to be berating an imaginary person in front of him. (When he laughs sarcastically after a poor shot, it can look as if he’s reacting to what that person just said back to him.) Muzz was especially animated on Sunday. Maybe Ivan Lendl’s absence gave him a chance to let it all out.
I like both of these guys, and I usually get a kick out of Murray’s mania, but at tense moments they’re dueling agitation and angst can cast a pall of negativity over their matches, one that doesn’t exist in the other recent rivalries. From an “Is it good for the game?” standpoint, that’s the only drawback I can see from a future filled with Murray-Djokovic finals—will their cursing and head shaking and mood swings appeal to the proverbial casual fan? (Though there are probably a lot of people who would enjoy a match like today’s, where both players smashed their racquets.)
How Will They Develop?
If you’re looking for an edge between these two, a conflict to spice things up, you probably won’t find it. They’re friendly; Djokovic said they “reconnected” at last year’s Aussie Open during soccer workouts. But there may be hope yet: In Shanghai, Murray said their matches “test” their friendship.
On court, will they push each other to new heights, the way Federer and Nadal did at Wimbledon in 2008 and Nadal and Djokovic did at the Aussie Open this year? Djokovic, who is chasing the year-end No. 1 ranking, and has been on a losing streak against Murray and Federer, did raise his game today. And he did it in his customary fashion—at the last possible second, and with a little piece of tension-loosening panache. With Murray serving for the match at 5-4 in the second set, Djokovic won a point by following up a tweener with a drop shot winner. As he did in his 2011 U.S. Open win over Federer, Djokovic threw his hand up to the crowd and smiled, despite the fact that he was hanging on for dear life. It worked. He held off a match point, broke serve, and then held off three more in a tiebreaker that went to 13-11. Along the way, he played some vintage Djokovic tennis, where even his riskiest shots look like sure-thing lasers. He’s now won 10 times after saving match points.
At the Open, Novak pushed Andy to play his best and finish a Grand Slam final for the first time. In Shanghai, Andy pushed Novak to come up with his best back-from-the-brink stuff and continue his late-season roll toward No. 1. Sounds like a good rivalry to me.