06.11.12

Rafael Nadal, Novak Djokovic, and Tennis’s Global Game at the French Open

Move over, Roger Federer! Once called the Greatest of All Time, ‘Fed’ is being trumped by two new history chasers: Rafael Nadal and Novak Djokovic. Nicholas McCarvel on how they're transforming the game.

On two practice courts just 40 feet apart, Rafael Nadal and Novak Djokovic ripped balls across the net with respective hitting partners. Both athletes were shirtless and sweaty from the sticky heat of the Melbourne summer. Crowds filled the small bleachers around the courts in earnest. “Rafa! Rafa!” and “Nole! Nole!” reverberated from the operations building behind Rod Laver Arena, fans hoping to get a glance of acknowledgment from two of tennis’s most charismatic figures. It was the Saturday before what was to become one of the sport’s most historic matches: a five hour, 53-minute affair in which Djokovic would overcome Nadal to claim his second straight Australian Open title and fourth major in five tournaments. 

Roger Federer was nowhere to be found.

A similar scenario played out in Paris at the French Open over the weekend, though this time around it was Nadal winning, the Spaniard denying Djokovic the feat of holding all four grand-slam tournaments at once after wins at Wimbledon, the U.S. Open, and his aforementioned title in Melbourne. This time their final would take two days, though not because they were on court for a mind-boggling six hours. Rain, instead, interrupted their play, the 26-year-old Nadal coming back Monday to clean up his game and collect a seventh Roland Garros title in eight years with a 6–4, 6–3, 2–6, 7–5 victory.

Federer, long known in the last decade to be the GOAT (Greatest of All Time) has suddenly faded to the background in what has become the Rafa-Nole Show. Djokovic and Nadal’s meeting in the Paris final—their fourth straight meeting in a championship match—cemented a fact that many Fed-heads, tennis enthusiasts, and casual fans of the sport long thought to be simple fact: Roger Federer is officially a third wheel in what has become an around-the-world affair between Djokovic and Nadal.

For decades, tennis was a game owned by the British, Americans, and Australians. Today, just five men from those three countries sit inside the top 50. Andy Murray, a Scotsman, is the most well known among them and has often been claimed by tennis media to be one of the “Big Four” along with Djokovic, Nadal, and Federer. Though these days, not even Federer can measure up with the Tremendous Two—suddenly the GOAT has two greater GOATs within his generation. Federer's last major coming at the Australian Open in 2010. 

Video screenshot

WATCH our mashup of Nadal's wedgie-picking tick.

As the Swiss maestro has faded, many Americans have decried this as a lost time for the stars and stripes within the sport: what happened to the days of Pete Sampras and Andre Agassi? Can you recall the rock star–like status of John McEnroe? While that may hold true on many levels (only one American, Mardy Fish, is in the top 10), tennis has finally blossomed into the global sport it was always meant to be with global superstars. Ten of the top 20 men are from different countries, and events have flourished in Africa, the far reaches of Asia and South America, and Eastern Europe.

The latter region has seen a flourish of talent over the decade, with athletes from the former Soviet bloc finding that tennis can be a way to make a healthy living and travel the globe. Maria Sharapova, Siberia-born and Florida-groomed, has transformed herself into a global superstar both on and off the court with her maiden title in 2004 at Wimbledon at age 17. She completed the “career slam” (a win at all four majors) on Saturday by winning the French Open

Much of tennis’s current success is credited to Federer and Nadal, who in the latter stages of the last decade staged a rivalry fit for history. Their five-set encounter at Wimbledon in 2008 is often called the greatest match of all time, with Nadal prevailing on the grass court (not his forte) 9–7 in the fifth set. 

The storylines for global tennis only get better as Nadal and Djokovic continue their back-and-forth. Who will conquer at Wimbledon? And again at the grounds of the All England Club a month later at the London Olympics?

But since that time, Djokovic, 25, has cleaned up his game and his diet, shifting to eating gluten-free to fight persistent allergies and seeing his game reach its potential last year, winning 43 straight matches before succumbing to Federer in Paris in the semifinals. It was the last time that Federer could breathe life on the grand-slam stage since losing to Djokovic (twice) and Nadal in major semifinals.

The arrival of these three players at one time in history can only help the game, however, even if Americans continue to throw their hands up in desperation and Federer lovers hold hope that he may reign again. Andy Roddick, the 2003 U.S. Open champion and former world No. 1 has now been relegated to No. 30, an afterthought in tennis hierarchy and now the third-ranked American on tour. 

The storylines for global tennis only get better as Nadal and Djokovic continue their back-and-forth. Who will conquer at Wimbledon? And again at the grounds of the All England Club a month later at the London Olympics? Can supporting cast members such as Federer, Murray, and the electric Frenchman Jo-Wilfried Tsonga or the big hitters like Tomas Berdych and Juan Martin del Potro push aside the Tremendous Two for a title?

While Americans for the most part might not realize, tennis is as healthy as it’s ever been—at least on the men's side. For Nadal and Djokovic, who seemingly couldn't miss during those practice stints in January in Australia—nor during this year's French Open—their runs in Paris solidified their burgeoning rivalry, now 19–14 in Nadal's favor. Djokovic lost today on a double fault, an overly human finish for a tennis god, and a reminder that these really are two incredible fighters just playing tennis.