Well, the match that we’ve anticipated since the French Open draw May 22 (Novak Djokovic’s 28th birthday), is now at hand, the 44th meeting between him and Rafael Nadal, the longest – and, I think, greatest – rivalry in tennis’ open era.
For both men, this is a crucial contest. For Rafa, it represents a chance to return to former glory after a dismal winter and a surprisingly mediocre season on his favorite surface, clay. A win against Nole in the quarterfinals Wednesday, June 3 – his 29th birthday – would cement the return of the King of Clay. He could still go down in the semifinal or final, but the Big Mo, momentum, would be with him.
For Nole, the quarterfinal represents an opportunity to bury once and for all the notion that he can’t beat Rafa at Roland-Garros, that he lacks the Rafa-esque mental fortitude to close out a match that means the most. He would be the only man to take Rafa down on every Slam surface, and he would position himself not only for a career Grand Slam, since the French is the only Slam he hasn’t won, but propel himself toward winning the Grand Slam in a calendar year – something no man has done since Rod Laver in 1969.
Nole could still lose then in the semifinal or final. He could remain like his idol Pete Sampras or Bjorn Borg one of the greatest tennis players never to win on all surfaces. But if he can beat Rafa in the house Rafa owns, he would deserve to be mentioned in the same breath as Rafa and even Roger Federer, who lost his quarterfinal match to countryman Stan Wawrinka. Nole would pass from stardom into legend.
Much has been made of Fedal, the Fed-Rafa rivalry, but it was never much of a rivalry despite its yin-yang appearance and the aura surrounding their 2008 Wimbledon final. Once Rafa, an introvert, conquered Fed, another introvert, he never let him in again. Whereas Rafanole – two tenacious baseliners, an introvert versus an extrovert – has always been like a high-stakes poker game with only two people. You bet. I raise you. You raise the stakes higher. I call. And so it goes.
It’s interesting to see the photograph of the pair in the new teNeues book “The Stylish Life: Tennis,” which shows them out on the town in Monte Carlo, Nole’s home and a mecca for gamblers. They’re dressed in matching tuxes. Rafa, long-haired, smiles for the camera. Nole, spiky-haired, looks off as if communing with himself. Their hands almost touch. They look like boys ready for their prom dates – or, perhaps, guys on a date themselves.
Srdjan Djokovic, Nole’s father – who could give Uncle Toni Nadal a run for his money in the tennis parent department – got into trouble once for saying that Rafa turned his back on his friendship with Nole. Who can say what goes on between others? But there’s no doubt that a relationship that included elaborate rituals of mutual respect and affection at the net changed after Nole began beating Rafa consistently in 2011. Look at the intimate images of Rafa and Nole, heads touching, after Rafa’s US Open win in 2010. Contrast this with their demeanor at the net after Nole’s win over Rafa in the marathon 2012 Australian Open. Nole buries his face in Rafa’s shoulder, embracing him. But Rafa does not fully hug him back. It’s the kind of moment that inspired my study of rivalry’s effect on personal relationships, the debut novel “Water Music.”
The same thing happened between Nole and Andy Murray when Andy – who’s having a great clay court season – broke through in 2012. There doesn’t seem to be the closeness that these three had when they were kids really, all chasing Fed and the dream of being number one.
There is loss in gain but also gain in loss. Look for a long, tight Rafanole quarterfinal. I think it will be more of a classic like their 2013 semifinal than a mess like their 2012 final. My heart says Nole; my head, Rafa.
Only one thing is certain: Rafanole lives.