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Thursday, September 8, 2011
A tangled web at the top of men's tennis

By Johnette Howard
ESPN.com

Novak Djokovic, Rafael Nadal, and Roger Federer
Maybe tennis' pecking order will straighten out if (when) one of these men hoists the Open trophy.

NEW YORK -- The phenomenon of how some athletes just have a personal nemesis -- can't beat 'em, can't stop 'em, can't explain 'em away, no matter how hard they try -- isn't unique to tennis. Baseball, for example, has been full over the years of dominant pitchers who can't get a certain .200 hitter out to save their lifes. And asking them why it happens is like asking someone where he lost his keys. If he knew how the hell to answer that, they wouldn't be lost, now would they?

So in the world of men's tennis, it's probably smart to have a grain of salt nearby to take with the three principals' various stabs at explaining the weird sort of triangulation going on right now among Roger Federer, Rafael Nadal and Novak Djokovic.

Novak Djokovic
Djokovic might be in Nadal's head, but that doesn't help him against Federer.

Djokovic, now the world's No. 1 player, says his new advantage is mental.

The second-ranked Nadal says it's all cyclical.

And Federer, now No. 3, usually denies any eclipse is really happening to him at all.

But it's indisputable that one of the side effects of the drama among them is that Federer might actually be winning big even as he's losing, if that makes any sense.

It's a little tangled. But let me try to explain. &

Right now, Federer still can't beat Nadal but all of a sudden Nadal now can't beat Djokovic though Nadal is just a year removed from winning three Grand Slam titles, a feat Djokovic hopes to accomplish at the U.S. Open by the end of this week. And yet, heading into the Open, which was nearly washed out completely Wednesday for a second straight day with all three men scheduled to play, Nadal has now lost five straight finals to Djokovic in 2011, including the championship match at Wimbledon. That's the win that sent Djokovic leapfrogging Nadal to seize the No. 1 ranking in addition to owning nearly everything else in tennis this year.

A few weeks ago, Federer was not shy about pointing out Djokovic's dominance over Nadal in a television interview during the Western & Southern Open in Cincinnati. And then adding for good measure that Djokovic has no such hold over him.

It was promptly noted back then that Federer's statements were a curious denial of the facts that Djokovic had defeated Federer, too, this year in the semifinals of the Australian Open, the final in Dubai and the semifinal at Indian Wells. One of the reasons Federer has slipped to No. 3 in the world is that he lost to Nadal, as well, in Miami, Madrid and Paris. He also lost to Jo-Wilfried Tsonga, his next opponent here in New York, in Montreal and the Wimbledon quarters before that.

Rafael Nadal
Nadal might be closer to overtaking Federer as the best ever, if it weren't for Djokovic.

But Paris, you see, is also where Federer played his best time-capsule match of the year and defeated Djokovic. The Serbian star has only two losses this year against 64 wins, and counting. Federer also snapped Djokovic's personal 43-match winning streak that day, which had been the talk of tennis, and Federer did it by serving out the match in the fourth set -- then jauntily wagging his index finger as though to tell all those people who doubted him, "No, no; I'm not through yet."

It was a fun little cocksure moment, one that sparked hope of a Federer renaissance -- until he lost the French final two days later to Nadal, as usual.

Nonetheless, that one win of Federer's over Djokovic continues to work a sort of alchemy on Federer's entire year, even though he just turned 30 and is in danger of not winning a Grand Slam title for the first time in eight years. He's won just one title, period, in all of 2011.

And the reason Federer is undergoing such a warm reappraisal goes something like this:

Federer's ability to defeat Djokovic even as Djokovic has drubbed Nadal five straight times this year has muddied Nadal's growing claim to Best Ever, which Nadal had been building with his mastery over Federer.

All of which means -- if you ask me -- the Greatest Of All Time discussion has to be reopened again.

That old conundrum that people kept throwing at Federer once Nadal began his dominance over him -- how can the Swiss star be the Greatest Of All Time when he can't even beat the other great player of his generation? -- isn't brought up very much lately. And especially not since Djokovic has taken flight.

Roger Federer
Federer has trouble with Nadal, but is one of the few with any success against Djokovic this year.

Nadal -- who often cuts open a vein in his news conferences and confesses to every foible and weakness he has, real and imagined -- limped away from his Wimbledon final loss admitting to a crisis of confidence against Djokovic. Anyone who saw Nadal's face as he walked to the net to shake Djokovic's hand could've guessed that. His unease wasn't just that Djokovic moves better than anyone else in the world now, Nadal included, and does everything else very very well, the way Federer used to. Nadal actually confessed that Djokovic has crawled into his head.

"Probably the mental part is little bit dangerous for me," Nadal volunteered. "I didn't play well these moments. That's what happened in Indian Wells, that's what happened in Miami, and that's what happened here. I don't want to count Madrid and Rome because he played much better than me.

"But these three times, that's what happened. And to change that is probably [going to require being a] little bit less nervous than these times, play more aggressive, and all the time be confident with myself. That's what I'm gonna try next time.

"If not, I'm gonna be here explaining the sixth [loss]."

The bottom line is that Federer's Greatest Of All Time status has actually been reaffirmed lately, not weakened. He still has those record 16 Slam titles. The torrid pace Nadal took to get to six majors has tailed off because of Djokovic. But nobody thinks Djokovic is historically better than Federer or Nadal -- just better right now.

So keep on acting like you're still best ever, Roger.

Honestly, it almost feels as though you never left.

Johnette Howard is a contributing columnist to ESPN.com and ESPNNewYork.com and is the author of "The Rivals: Chris Evert vs. Martina Navratilova, Their Epic Duels and Extraordinary Friendship." She can be reached at jphinbox@yahoo.com.

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