Commentary

Genial giants maintain fierce rivalry

Originally Published: August 22, 2011
By Kamakshi Tandon | Special to ESPN.com

NEW YORK -- Tennis recently has been in the midst of an '80s revival, with two books, a recent documentary and nostalgic rematches recalling the electrifying era of John McEnroe, Bjorn Borg and Jimmy Connors.

Their rivalries captured the public's imagination, taking tennis mainstream and making its biggest players household names. It was a high-water mark in the sport's popularity, and the benchmark in which all successive periods have been compared. The modern-day game was usually found waning in these comparisons, until the classic 2008 Wimbledon final between Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal reached the heights of the 1980 Wimbledon final between McEnroe and Borg -- and even surpassed it, in some eyes. Now, with Novak Djokovic joining the fray, the men's game seems more and more to be in the midst of another age of giants. Although they do not map on to each other perfectly -- Borg's game is compared to Nadal's but his temperament to Federer's -- the triangle evokes a similar dynamic of contrasting personalities and games: Federer's aristocratic brilliance; Nadal's weighty might, and the pomp, pride and playfulness of Djokovic.

So how do these latest rivalries stack up against their predecessors? According to Connors, today's competitors seem "soft" compared to those of his day. "There was nothing quiet about our rivalry. And we weren't afraid for people to know it," Connors said earlier this summer, highlighting the personal antagonism that existed between him and McEnroe. "When we walked out onto the court, the tennis was almost secondary. It was true and it was deep.

"I would have played him on crutches."

It was Connors who famously vowed after a loss to Borg, "I'll follow that SOB to the ends of the Earth," a sentiment that is hard to see ever being expressed by, say, Nadal, even after his recent string of losses to Djokovic.

[+] EnlargeJimmy Connors
Getty ImagesNot only did Connors, McEnroe and Borg grind to the bitter end on the court, there was a much-publicized disdain between them.

Instead, Nadal readily acknowledges Djokovic's recent mental edge and routinely calls Federer the greatest player ever. No, no, says Djokovic, Nadal is the greatest player ever. Things don't change away from the microphones. Witness Nadal throwing an arm of comfort around Federer during the Australian Open final ceremony, or Djokovic walking by and giving Nadal a friendly tap after Nadal's quarterfinal loss at the Western and Southern Open in Cincinnati a couple of weeks ago. Things are a little cooler between Federer and Djokovic, but Federer responded to Djokovic's Wimbledon victory last month by saying, "He deserves to become No. 1 after an immense start to the year. It is good for tennis that it happened."

Yes, today's matchups are certainly played in a different spirit, and the participants prefer it that way. "I think [it] is better," said Nadal at Wimbledon, in response to Connors' comments. "For the example for the kids especially. If the kids who are watching the matches here, who are following us, will see each other fight every week, discuss every week between each other -- probably in the future they are going to have the same. In my opinion, is not a good way [that] the world have to work.

"This is [a] game," he added. "We can be talking in the locker room before the match. That's not going to have effect [on] what's going to happen in 10 minutes when we are on the court. That's my opinion. Probably the opinion of the past champions -- they have more troubles between each other. Is different."

Federer and Nadal were on the front lines last year as two other past greats, Pete Sampras and Andre Agassi, quite literally took aim at each other during the Hit for Haiti exhibition at the BNP Paribas Open at Indian Wells. Such simmering tensions are nowhere to be seen in their relationship.

"I think Roger, for sure he's a good person. At the same time, he's a good friend of mine at this moment," Nadal has said. "For sure, our relationship is getting closer and closer all the time, and I think we are feeling comfortable together."

Although they're not close enough to be typically going out for dinner or drinks, the three do seem to be able to enjoy each other's company when they find themselves together away from the court.

The lack of animosity doesn't seem to have hurt the quality of the contests, from the classic five-set Grand Slam finals between Federer and Nadal to the marathon three-setters Nadal and Djokovic have played against each other.

"In the past, maybe there have been much tougher and harsher rivalries," Federer said in a TV interview earlier this year. "People wouldn't talk to each other; they didn't like each other and they needed to hate each other to actually perform well against each other. But it doesn't need to be that way."

The new vibe has been bemoaned, by McEnroe as "so professional" -- an astute description, with the training, preparation and discipline required these days perhaps both requiring less personal emotion and leaving less room for it. Their European roots, the game's stricter codes of conduct and a more pervasive media presence likely also contribute to the change. But though some miss the outbursts, controversies and mystique, others enjoy the current mix of intensity on court and amicability off it.

Even Connors concedes today's trio have something going for them. "Times have changed. What they give on the court and how they do, the effort they give, what they go after, maybe they have found other ways to reach that, to get to that rivalry," he said. "Back then, was it necessary? For me it was necessary, yes, it was. That's what helped me reach my true potential every time I walked out there. But maybe today it's not.

"The stands are certainly full, and the tennis is certainly a high level, and the sponsors certainly have continued to support and be a part of a game."

But the critiques don't end there. "The only thing I would like to see a little bit more of in the game and why I go back to the Samprases, the Lavers, the McEnroes and the Borgs is that one style fits all right now, and that kind of lets a guy feel like he's lulled into a certain kind of game which is playable on any given day," Connors said.

"The game is very strong and deep. But I think we'd all like to see a little serve-and-volley tennis out there. The contrast is always fun to watch," Sampras said this year. "Serve-and-volley tennis is no longer around. Players today are just very, very big. Big servers, big hitters."

Once again, however, Nadal is ready to hit back with the speed and verve of one of his baseline rallies against Federer or Djokovic. "Personally, to watch a Pete Sampras versus Goran Ivanisevic match, or one between those kind of players, is not enjoyable. It's not really tennis, it is a few swings of the racket," he said. "It was less eye-catching than what we do now. Everyone enjoys the tennis we play much more. I am not saying we are playing better tennis, just more enjoyable tennis. For me, in the past it was just serve, serve, serve."

Take that. These contemporary champions aren't given to firing shots at each other, but it doesn't mean they won't stand up to a challenge from their rival rivalries.

Kamakshi Tandon is a freelance tennis writer for ESPN.com.