Djokovic/Nadal Rivalry Lacking in Passion, Excitement of Rivalries of Old
Court Philippe Chatrier at Roland Garros will take center stage for the semifinal showdown between tennis greats Rafael Nadal and Novak Djokovic . The rivalry of these two tennis standouts will be played on an outdoor crimson clay court where the weather can have a significant impact on play. The bull ring, as the court is known in Paris, is no stranger to some of the greatest games, sets and match points witnessed and appreciated in tennis.
It has been said that Nadal and Djokovic show too much respect for each another and that the art of tennis-watching has become void of classic rivalries. The fervor between epic twosomes such as John McEnroe paired against Jimmy Connors or the head-to-heads between ’90s tennis greats Andre Agassi and Pete Sampras kept the audience in play.
If there’s anyone who knows impassioned rivalries, it’s McEnroe, a fiery player who might be best known for his outburst, “You cannot be serious.” Now 54 years old, his competitive fires are still being stoked, only this time behind a microphone as an on-air tennis commentator. McEnroe has been vocal about how predictable and boring the present-day rivalries on the Grand Slam circuit have become, and he’s right.
Look at the rivalries of old. Millions of fans worldwide enjoyed the relentless competitiveness when watching the bombastic McEnroe play a brazen Jimmy Connors. Their rivalry on court took on a life of its own and lasted 14 years. Line call disputes, verbal assuaging and heated face-to-face confrontations were the norm on game-day. Connors and McEnroe went head to head to 37 times, and seven of those matches were at Roland Garros.
During the 1990s, Agassi and Sampras were the world’s top tennis players. Agassi’s weapon of destruction was his service return. His surfer boy good looks, vibrant personality and unique choices of haute couture while playing drew in the masses worldwide.
Sampras’s chosen vehicle on court was his “chip and charge” strategy that would bring the crowd to their feet as he served and volleyed his way to 14 Grand Slam titles. His win at the 2001 U.S Open had no breaks of serve the entire match and fractured the psychological advantage that Agassi had.
“I let my racquet do the talking,” Sampras said. Sampras appealed to fans due to his introverted, unassuming, yet delightfully deceptive rushes to the net. Sampras and Agassi met 34 times with Agassi coming out on top with 20 wins.
So how does the Nadal/Djokovic rivalry measure up?
I was witness to the Nadal/Djokovic rivalry in the finals at the Sony Erickson Tournament in Key Biscayne, Fla. in April of 2011. The heat, humidity and sun were oppressive, but Djokovic emerged the winner after a three-hour, 22-minute battle. The match was gripping; Nadal took the first set but Djokovic’s second serve return was stronger and slowly wore Nadal’s physicality down to win 4-6, 6-3, 7-6(4). The two have met 34 times with Nadal holding the edge at 19 wins.
The tennis itself is exciting, but the enmity and passion seem to be missing and tennis audiences want and desire showmanship.
In a day and age when social media is rampant, athletes such as Nadal and Djokovic have chosen to take the middle ground on and off the court. Have players become too polite to one another? Are temper tantrums a thing of the past?
Nadal and Djokovic’s interviews are diplomatic and predictable. “It is what it is,” Nadal said of facing Djokovic in the French Open semifinal. The comment does not hint at the slightest sense of antagonism. Meanwhile, spectators are clamoring for a blood, sweat and tears mentality seen and felt at an international level. Both players can generate immense power on the court, yet that needs to be emitted off court as well.
The sport of tennis needs an infusion of personalities. Djokovic is 26 years old, Nadal is 27, yet there is no spark between them on the court. The outbursts McEnroe displayed in epic proportions need not be repeated, but a sense of urgency needs to be expressed from the players on the court to the millions that follow tennis to make this rivalry truly compelling. The general public might not have agreed with McEnroe’s outbursts, but it did get us talking about tennis.
Competition is healthy, and I for one, want to be engaged in the match. The rallies can be long while playing on clay, and a sense of excitement needs to be paralleled on court. It is a sad state in the tennis world when Bud Collins, the famed tennis broadcaster, stated that tennis has become boring to watch.
Nadal and Djokovic need to prove him and other naysayers wrong. Until then, “C’est La Vie.”
Dedicated to Sal and his love of the game.