“You’re only as good as your opponent makes you play,” Martina Navratilova observes in “Strokes of Genius.” It’s a documentary about Rafael Nadal’s hard-fought triumph over Roger Federer in the 2008 Wimbledon final, which Jon Wertheim describes in his book of the same name as the greatest tennis match to date.
Navratilova was talking, of course, of her own rivalry with Chris Evert – tennis’ longest and, some would say, best, ranked ahead of Fedal (Federer-Nadal) and, my favorite Rafanole (Nadal and Novak Djokovic, so-called for their nicknames). In her observation, Navratilova hit on a glorious irony: A rival – not just an opponent but a real rival – may mean you will win less but you’ll be the better for it.
It’s an interesting idea, isn’t it? Might Nole have won more if Fed and Rafa were not on the scene? Did he win when (and because) they were momentarily eclipsed? Did they resurge recently, because Nole was in a funk? What is certain is what Nole has often said: They were the making of him as a player.
I was reminded of all this as the two-year-old, Fed-driven exhibition Laver Cup concluded Sunday, Sept. 23, with Team Europe defeating Team World once again. Leading Team Europe this year were Fed and Nole, whose rivalry has been overshadowed by their separate rivalries with Rafa. There had been some bad blood between them going back to Nole’s punk, puffed-up youth and Fed’s dismissiveness of some “lucky” Nole wins. Plus, let’s face it, Fedal was already well-established when Nole began his ascent. To some, he must’ve seemed like a third wheel and Rafanole a lesser rivalry than Fedal, even though Rafa and Nole have faced each other more than Fed and Rafa (52 times versus 38) and have had more of a seesaw battle. (There are even those contrarians who consider Fednole the best of the three rivalries.)
Now married fathers in their 30s and with Rafa temporarily sidelined by a bum right knee, Fed and Nole seemed to have discovered each other. They put on a show in Chicago, along with many of the top male stars of the game, even if they did lose their doubles match. Nole even managed to hit Fed accidentally with a shot, proving — as my Uncle Johnny always says — that singles and doubles are two different animals.
Are they besties – as The New York Times’ headline proclaimed? Fed said he and Nole won’t be vacationing together any time soon, but Nole added that they will be back as a doubles team – to improve their 0-1 record.
While experts point to the pitfalls of friendly rivalry, there have been rivals who are real friends, as in Evert and Navratilova, who tried hard to dislike each other then wound up traveling and eating together. (Today, they still talk regularly and have been known to go fall antiquing on Long Island.)
It should also be noted that Team Europe and Team World were captained respectively by two men who make up one of the greatest of friendly rivalries – Björn Borg and John McEnroe.
In the end, a little camaraderie – similar to that in baseball’s “All-Star Game” — may be a mini vacation for players in a sport known for its singular, um, singularity.
Nick Kyrgios, tennis’ reigning bad boy, captured that sentiment when he said, “If somehow tennis was like this every week of the year, it would be so much more enjoyable.”
Indeed, Nick, indeed.
For more, check out August WAG’s tennis coverage.