With the Czech Republic’s defeat of Serbia to retain the Davis Cup Nov. 17, the men’s tennis season draws to a close – except not really. There’s Abu Dhabi right after Christmas and then the Hopman Cup, which I had the pleasure of watching from my sickbed in Jakarta last New Year’s Eve. (Hey, not every woman can say she spent New Year’s Eve with Novak Djokovic, but there we were, so to speak – me, Nole and Pippa. No, not Middleton. My sister Jana’s Black Lab.)
Anyway, as I said to Pippa, who concurred, the Hopman Cup is like a party and not just ’cause it falls during Christmas week. There’s men’s singles, women’s singles and mixed doubles. Nole played mixed doubles with Ana Ivanovic, who looks like a young Princess Caroline. The men in my family were smitten.
But we were talking about men’s tennis and the recent debate over whether Rafanole (Rafael Nadal-Novak Djokovic) is as good a rivalry as Fedal (Roger Federer-Nadal). Tennis is so intense that even the rivalries have rivalries. Sheesh.
The whole debate is a bit like friends and family finding it difficult to warm to the second wife or husband. Let’s move on people, shall we? I’m happy to concede that Fedal had more traditional contrasts – older star, young gun; righty, lefty; serve and volleyer, baseliner; preppy, pirate. And I’ll also acknowledge to Fedal fans that one of the reasons people haven’t warmed – yet – to Rafanole is because Nole got off to a rough start with fans. This was partly of his own making and partly a matter of geopolitical circumstances, not just Serbia’s role in Balkan atrocities but the West versus the mysterious, misunderstood East. (As you’ll see in my novel “Water Music,” the games men play mirror the games nations play.)
But what Fedal fans don’t understand – and what already makes Rafanole the best rivalry in tennis and maybe in sports – is the point-counterpoint that transcends the court and defines the rhythm of the season. No sooner had Rafa bested Nole at the U.S. Open this year and taken the No. 1 ranking from him (after Nole took it from him at Wimbledon in 2011) than Nole came back to win the China Open and the climactic ATP World Tour Finals in London.
Fedal may have been more graceful than Rafanole – though not more neurotically amusing with all the ball-bouncing (Nole) and lining up of water bottles (Rafa) – but the truth is once Rafa bested Fed it was all over. Rafa never let him back into the rivalry. Whereas Rafanole is like a high-stakes poker game – someone lays down a bet, someone sees it and raises, the first person calls and on it rolls – back and forth, tit for tat.
It’s precisely because of their similarities – in age, baseline power and unwillingness to give in – that Rafa and Nole are great rivals. They remind us you don’t have to be mighty opposites (apologies to the Bard) or even opponents to be interesting rivals. Joe Montana and Steve Young, anyone?
One of the most fascinating rivalries – beautifully captured in Billy Crystal’s “61*” – was Mickey Mantle’s and Roger Maris’ pursuit of Babe Ruth’s single-season home run record. For one glorious summer in 1961, they not only answered each other, homer for homer, but they lived together in Queens, shopping at the local market and cooking together.
I think there’s a comedy in there somewhere.