Gladiators: The return of Rafanole

Spring has returned and with it Rafanole.

The rivalry that is the best in tennis – perhaps the greatest of all time in the sport – renewed itself at the Italian Open as Novak Djokovic outlasted Rafael Nadal 7-5 7-6 (4) in the quarterfinals. As is always the case between these two, it was closer than the score indicated.

It was also a match in which the hyperbolic announcers bandied about the word “gladiatorial” a great deal. And yet there really is something gladiatorial about Rafanole’s contests, particularly on the grueling red clay of Rome. The penetrating groundstrokes, the carefully calibrated net-play, the intensity of two never-give-in battlers and yet, something ineffable as well. There’s a chemistry here that will neither be denied nor explained. (And an unmistakable endurance. It’s the only rivalry to be played out in all four Slams, including four consecutive ones, and a record 24 Masters Series matches.) But don’t take my word for it.

“…The chemistry between these two really is special and different from any other rivalry,” writes Peter Bodo. There's something unpredictable and often surprising about their clashes, and they always become epic or near-epic sagas. The ballstriking can be just plain out of this world. Even if the play is ragged, the matches are always deadly earnest and competitive. This one, despite being just two sets, lasted for 2 hours, 25 minutes.”

When it was over, Nole led the rivalry 26 to 23. As with all relationships, there is a sense that the balance of power has shifted here from Rafa, who turns 30 on June 3, to Nole – 29 on May 22, the day the French Open begins – diluting the warmth and camaraderie that once flowed across the net at the end of matches when Nole was the little brother and eternal No. 3 to Rafa and Roger Federer. And that’s too bad. But as I explore in my debut novel “Water Music,” about rivalry and relationships, that’s probably inevitable with a changing of the guard. Now little brother leads. It can’t be easy for Rafa, who’s lost to Nole seven times in a row.

Still, you gotta love Rafa, a class act (as is Nole):

“I am so happy to be in a close match, and I have to congratulate him. He played great,” Nadal said. “We played a beautiful match.”

It’s always a beautiful match when these two play. Here’s hoping we’ll have yet another in the French Open final.