Column: Novak Djokovic and Rafael Nadal treating tennis to a rivalry not to be missed

If variety is the spice of life, then we should be sick by now of Rafael Nadal, with his seven titles in eight years at the French Open and another waiting for him in Sunday's final. Perhaps tennis and its only Grand Slam tournament played on clay could do with a change, a new champion.

Think again. Tennis and the French crowds that shout "Rafa, Rafa, Rafa" are going to sorely miss Nadal when his creaky knees finally give out for good. If you've never set aside five or so hours to watch Nadal slug it out with Novak Djokovic at one of tennis' four major tournaments then you haven't fully lived. Don't miss the next opportunity — perhaps in a month at Wimbledon. Because there is no guarantee that the next big rivalry in tennis will be anywhere near as extraordinary as this one.

Of course, Rafa vs. Roger used to be very special, too. Wimbledon in 2008, when Nadal finally defeated Federer in their third final on that hallowed grass, was an all-time classic. It was hard to imagine that tennis could get better than that.

Doesn't seem so unlikely now.

Although only a semifinal, Djokovic against Nadal at the French Open on Friday was the final in all but name. It was unquestionably the match of the tournament, not just because of the players involved but because of the way they played it, with intensity and courage. No quarter asked and none given. Often in sports, marquee match-ups don't live up to the over-inflated expectations they generate. This wasn't one of those let-downs.

Like Nadal against Federer in that Wimbledon final — regarded by some fans of tennis as the best match ever played — this also went to five sets and to 9-7 in the fifth. And, again, it finished game, set and match to Nadal.

Djokovic's fitness coach, Gebhard Phil-Gritsch, was the picture of disappointment afterward, slumped in a seat in the player's lounge. But he neatly summed up the value of Djokovic vs. Nadal for their sport.

"The winner is tennis," he said.

The short summary of this epic, 4-hour, 37-minute marathon is that Nadal could have won in four sets but Djokovic clawed back and should have won it in the fifth.

The long version is that it is stunning how successfully Nadal has come back from his left knee injury. It kept him out of tennis for seven months until February. Even Toni Nadal, his uncle and coach whose tough-love teaching methods helped make Rafael so impervious to doubt and defeat, is amazed.

When Djokovic was winning the Australian Open this January, the Nadals couldn't be sure how Rafael might fare when he eventually returned. Toni Nadal couldn't stomach watching others play tennis on television while his nephew was sidelined. He said Friday that had anyone told him then that Rafael would be back in the Roland Garros final six months later, he wouldn't have believed them.

"For us, it's really a miracle," he said. Emotion then overwhelmed him, cutting short the rest of his sentence. He never finished it, spinning away on his heels and walking back to the locker room. Later, composed, he returned and said Rafael shed a few tears, too.

"You know, I learned during all my career to enjoy suffering, and these kind of matches are very special. You don't have the chance to play these kind of matches every day," Rafael Nadal said. "So when these kind of matches happens you suffer, but I really enjoy these moments, no? I really enjoy suffering, because what's harder is when I am (back home) in Mallorca last year and I had to watch these kind of matches on the TV."

David Ferrer will become only the second player ever to have beaten Nadal at the French Open if he wins their final on Sunday. Djokovic's coach, Marian Vajda, said there is no greater challenge in tennis.

"He's the king of clay," Vajda said of Nadal.

Of Djokovic, he said: "He was very close, right?"

"He has to wait another year for the chance," he added, laughing. "Always there is a next year."

"It was a great match to watch."

None of the great rivals in tennis' Open era — Jimmy Connors and John McEnroe, Connors and Ivan Lendl, Lendl and McEnroe, Andre Agassi and Pete Sampras — played more matches against each other than Djokovic and Nadal have now done. This was their 35th meeting. If Nadal's knees don't go again, there should be many more, since Djokovic is 26 and Nadal only one year older.

"Rafa and Roger was also great, it was on the edge all the time," Vajda said.

But that was then.


John Leicester is an international sports columnist for The Associated Press. Write to him at jleicester(at) or follow him at