Andy Murray, Novak Djokovic rivals
Here it is, a groove slightly transformed
It was something that purists spoke about but never really discussed out loud or in mixed company. Something, it seemed, they were never really ready to predict with certainty or conviction.
Tennis at the top level revolved around two suns: Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal. It was the greatest contemporary rivalry in the sport, the most compelling ongoing rivalry in all of sports.
But for the past four years, two others constantly orbited nearby: Novak Djokovic and Andy Murray. They were the three and four to Rafa's and Fed's one-two primacy. Individually. Separately. While Djokovic sneaked in to become the No. 1 player in the world for almost a year (in 2011, during what many considered one of the greatest individual seasons in tennis history), Murray held down the year-end No. 4 spot like George Harrison in the Beatles.
As a collective, the four were packaged and sold to us as tennis' Big Three, plus one. And inside that collective, Rafa and Roger were The Rivalry, Novak the challenger to the throne, Murray the one watching the throne.
Then Monday unfurled.
The men's final that equaled the longest men's final in U.S. Open history was much more than just one of the greatest U.S. Open men's finals ever. It was the prelude to what is about become the great(est) rivalry in sports, not just tennis.
What began at the semifinals in the Australian Open in January -- a 6-3, 3-6, 6-7 (4-7) 6-1, 7-5 victory for Djokovic -- and continued in the Olympic men's semifinals -- a 7-5, 7-5 win for Murray -- reached early-stage Chamberlain-Russell status after Murray's victory in Queens.
The tale of the tape is set, and it's so close to perfect that it's scary. Murray and Djokovic are the same age (25); both (unlike Federer and Nadal) are reaching their prime at the exact same time; both are the only two in position to put a dent in the Nadal-Federer dynasty. They've faced each other 15 times as professionals. That record? 8-7. Djoker by one; Andy winning the past two.
What's happened now is the realization -- because of Rafa's injuries and Roger's age -- that Djokovic and Murray will have to go through each other more often than Nadal or Federer to get what they want, to establish their place in history, to define their careers. They've by default become each other's nemesis.
After Monday, Djokovic-Murray is no longer a secret or tennis' quietest rivalry. Boris Becker said in the Telegraph that he's looking forward to "a terrific rivalry between Andy and Novak."
Experts and aficionados are no longer talking quietly among themselves about how this might happen. With Murray's dramatic major win, it's here. The close-to-23,000 people sitting on top of one another in Arthur Ashe Stadium who saw the rivalry manifest itself before their eyes know it, as do the over 16 million who witnessed it on TV (after the rest of the country tuned in to watch the premiere of "Katie").
A rivalry simply found itself. And so did we.
Sports' real Next is now exposed. And if anything, that spotlight just increases the pressure on these two men. What's in store for the next five years whenever they face each other? Can they emerge from the shadows of two stars and into the hearts and souls of anyone who's been looking for something deeper than the LeBron James-Kevin Durant rivalry that feels like it is being forced down our throats? Can they provide something far less contrived than Rory McIlroy versus Anyone Who's In The Hunt on Sundays? I truly believe they can.
Djokovic has five major singles titles to Murray's one. But the Grand Slam titles or Olympic crowns won't be why these men will become a part of tennis lore. Legendary battles like the one we just witnessed could become a badge of honor and could eventually shape their professional legacies. Murray, meanwhile, has taken a huge step up. Future battles against Djokovic will be Murray's entrance into what used to be a three-man circle. They will be why he might someday sit on the throne instead of sitting on the outside watching it.
The Djokovic-Murray era has officially begun. It promises to be something more personal, something more linear, something more earnest and urgent, something more organic and authentic, something that's ... just a bit of a break from the norm.