Roger Federer’s rivalry with Rafael Nadal, which played out its 40th chapter in the Wimbledon semifinals, has been held up by many as the greatest rivalry in tennis’, even sport’s, history. But it is not. Because tellingly, Federer’s victory over Nadal did not earn him the Wimbledon title, merely a shot at it against the all too often overlooked Novak Djokovic, who has muscled his way to the top of the game to shatter the duopoly of Federer and Nadal and earlier had booked his place in a 25th Major final by dispatching Roberto Bautista Agut in four sets.
That is not to say that Djokovic is somehow superior to Federer or Nadal. Rather he is their equal. Nor is it to say that his rivalry with Nadal, who he has met 54 times, or Federer, against whom he has contested 47 matches with the 48th set to be played in Sunday’s final, is superior to the Federer-Nadal rivalry. But what is true, is that each individual rivalry is all-but meaningless when not situated within the larger context of their three-way battle for supremacy in the men’s game.
One suspects that Federer cares little about claiming a 16th win over Nadal. What will matter to the great Swiss is that his victory gives him the chance to claim a ninth Wimbledon title and 21st Grand Slam. If Djokovic can beat Federer, which would be his 26th victory over the great Swiss and tenth in Grand Slam action, what will matter to him is not beating Federer, but winning a fifth Wimbledon title and taking another step towards possibly overhauling Federer in the Grand Slam stakes.
In fact, so frequently have this great trio met, over 130 times between them, that individual matches have somewhat lost their meaning in the balance books. They will, of course, be remembered as some of the greatest clashes of all time, that did much to cement Federer, Nadal and Djokovic’s position as legends of the game. Indeed, each individual rivalry has had at least one standout clash just in a Grand Slam final, let alone the rest of their many matches.
The 2008 Wimbledon final between Nadal and Federer set a benchmark of greatness. But it would be folly to think it had not been equalled by the gladiatorial 2012 Australian Open final which saw Djokovic outlast and outfight Nadal after nearly six hours or the exquisite display of ball-striking that Djokovic and Federer put on in the 2014 Wimbledon final. That in itself arguably illustrates the futility of trying to place one individual rivalry above another.
But for all the majesty of those matches and the genius displayed within them, their significance ultimately rests more in their outcomes. Every time Federer steps on to the court to face one of his great rivals and vice versa, what matters most of all is the chance to continue his own quest for glory and halt his opponent’s. Federer’s triumph at Wimbledon was as much about preserving his legacy from further damage at the hands of Nadal as it was about the chance to extend it further. Against Djokovic on Sunday, he will again have to tread that fine line between triumph and disaster.
And that, surely, is what true rivalry is.
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