Rivalries, real or perceived, are good for sport. And in tennis, right now, we are blessed to have four court-crossed champions who have forged a series of rivalries that have captured the collective imagination of tennis fans worldwide.
Roger and Rafa, Novak and Andy, Roger and Novak, Andy and Novak, Andy and Roger. Surnames are not required, even for the casual tennis fan.
But unlike the contrived over-the-top pairings in pro wrestling or the stage-managed manufactured rivalries between aspiring heavyweight champions, these rivalries are real. Born from history and forged from heartbreak, these are match-ups with meaning.
In an australianopen.com poll, we asked fans which was their favourite rivalry in men’s tennis today. Not surprisingly, Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal topped the list. Sadly this is a potential combination we have been robbed of with Nadal unable to make the trip to Melbourne this year, and no doubt Federer would love the chance to improve on the 18-10 record that Nadal holds over him.
What has made this rivalry one of the greatest the game has seen is the number of classic finals and Grand Slam encounters these two have played. Time and again they have delivered on the biggest stages of all.
“I remember our great semifinals we had here last year,” said Federer when asked about Nadal. “This is maybe the moment where you do miss him a little bit to a degree.
“So it's a pity. We know that. The game's obviously stronger with him than without.”
Second according to the poll was Federer and Novak Djokovic – which could have another instalment on Sunday should Federer defeat Murray in tonight’s semifinal. In 29 matches, Federer holds a narrow lead, winning 16 of their tussles. In Grand Slam matches, the lead is even narrower, 6-5 in Federer’s favour.
This match-up of artistry and intense determination has blossomed in recent seasons thanks to the rise of Djokovic and the continued brilliance of Federer.
Third on the list was Nadal and Djokovic. The final they played here in 2012 was considered by many to be not only the match of 2012 but one of the great all-time Grand Slam tournament finals. Nadal holds a convincing 19-14 record over Djokovic, but the Serb has won three of the five Grand Slam finals they have contested against each other.
This rivalry brings together two players who both defend fiercely but also have innate attacking instincts. Some of their matches have been virtual highlight reels from beginning to end – their 2011 US Open final and the return bout at Australian Open 2012 were two standout matches.
Next it was the match-up between Djokovic and Murray – childhood friends who are now both members of the Grand Slam tournament winners’ club. Djokovic has won 10 of their 17 matches to date, and they may well meet again on Sunday if Murray can overcome Federer.
The relentlessness of Djokovic has often overshadowed and ultimately overpowered the poetry of Murray’s strokes. But when the Great Scot broke through at Flushing Meadows in September last year, he added to his game what could be the final piece of the puzzle – belief.
In Grand Slam finals they are locked at 1-1 – Djokovic triumphing here in 2011 before Murray struck back in 2012 in New York.
It didn’t rate highly in the poll, but there’s a rivalry between Federer and Murray that, while perhaps being seen by fans as not as intense as the others listed, certainly exists.
The Swiss and the Scot have built up quite an on-court history. In 19 matches, the win-loss is as even as it could be – 10-19 in Murray’s favour. Eight of their matches have been finals and of those matches Federer has won five, including the two Grand Slam finals they have played.
“I always enjoyed the match-ups with him because it gets to be very tactical,” said Federer ahead of their semifinal.
“[It] wasn't a straightforward match. He would make you doubt and play very different to the rest of the guys. I kind of always enjoyed that, you know, when it's just not every point's the same. We used to mix it up against each other.
“Now it's changed a bit because he's playing more offensive. The rallies aren't as long and grueling as they used to be. We both can do that.”
No doubt Federer will be hoping to even the score tonight and solidify yet another active rivalry in the men’s game.