Rafanole lives!

It warmed my heart recently to hear that Rafael Nadal and Novak Djokovic will resume the greatest rivalry in tennis next week at an exhibition match in Thailand. 

According to Tennis World, Lawn Tennis Association President Suwat Liptapanlop said Djokovic and Nadal will boost Thai tourism:

“Both players will go shopping at the One Tambon One Product (OTOP) hall in the afternoon of Oct. 1 and they will meet (Prime Minister) Prayut Chanocha at Government House at 11 a.m. on Oct. 2.”

Then presumably they’ll get down to the business of playing tennis at the Hua Mark Indoor Stadium before the actual Asian swing of the tour begins.

Rafa and Nole seem to enjoy these promoting-tourism-in-foreign-countries-while-shopping-till-we-drop-and-oh-yes-playing-a-little-tennis excursions. Remember when they played tennis on a barge near a glacier in South America toward the end of the 2013 season? Good times.

They’ve been criticized, however, for seeking to promote tourism in a country with a poor record of democracy. Hey, if we all visited only those countries free of wrongdoing, no one would travel anywhere.

Still, there are moments when we can’t turn a blind eye. The American soldiers who beat up those Afghan “allies” whom they caught using boys as sex slaves did the right thing. The Army leaders who looked the other way “because that’s their culture” and dismissed the soldiers who defended the children did something as heinous as the rapists themselves.

Back to Rafa and Nole: Their Thai jaunt suggests not only how popular tennis is internationally but also how esteemed their rivalry is. I began this post by calling it the greatest in tennis even as experts believe it has been eclipsed by Fedovic (Novak Djokovic’s battles with Roger Federer). Both are about dead-even, but to my mind Fedovic lacks the joy, the chemistry, the sheer sex appeal of Rafanole. Great rivalries, the subject of my novel series “The Games Men Play,” are about complements with a common cause – the intense Michael Phelps, the laidback Ryan Lochte; the introspective Rafa, a sultry, muscular Latino, the extroverted Nole, a soulful, sinewy Slav.

You could make the case that the elegant Feddy Bear is the complement of the sensual Rafa and the spiky Nole. But once Rafa beat Fed consistently, Fedal was pretty much dead as a rivalry, and Fedovic isn’t complementary, it’s antagonistic. I don’t get the sense that Feddy has any regard for Nole, or, for that matter, anyone else. He doesn’t need a rival. He has himself.

Which brings me to the essence of a great rivalry – the give-and-take, the suggestion, even if it’s more illusion than reality, that there is a relationship that goes along with it. Part of what makes Phlochte such a joy is the love Phelps and Lochte have for each other. At the World Aquatic Championships this past summer, Phelps, who did not take part because of his recent suspension for DUI, texted Lochte that he needed to step up as a leader. Only a friend would do that.

Similarly, Andy Murray texted Nole his congratulations after the latter won the US Open men’s championship recently. They’re rivals, yet there’s something more there. Call it R-E-S-P-E-C-T.

And consider this: Will Feddy be going along with Rafa and Nole on the shopping-tennis expedition?

Thought so.