Commentary

The rivalry of all rivalries

Updated: June 22, 2012, 7:29 PM ET
By Greg Garber | ESPN.com

Remember that quaint, spirited little rivalry between Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal?

That was so 42 seconds ago.

Just the facts, please: No. 1 Novak Djokovic and No. 2 Nadal have won the past nine Grand Slam singles titles, with Nadal holding a tenuous 5-4 lead. They have met in the past four major finals. No exalted pair, including Roger and Rafa, ever managed it consecutively more than twice.

Is this devastating one-two punch good for tennis?

"I think so. I believe so," Djokovic said after losing the French Open final. "I mean, obviously Federer and Nadal have still the biggest rivalry in the sport, I mean, because they have been at the top for so many years, they have been so dominant.

[+] EnlargeDjokovic-Nadal
Mike Hewitt/Getty ImagesWill Novak Djokovic and Rafael Nadal make it five straight Grand Slam final clashes?

"I just joined that rivalry recently, couple years ago. We are very young, and we played over 30 times against each other. Hopefully, we can have many more battles in the next years."

In a fortnight's time, there could be another final at Wimbledon -- Nole-Rafa V -- a title worthy of the kings that reigned for more than four centuries in the Tower of London.

"Here's the amazing thing," said Brad Gilbert, who coached Andre Agassi, Andy Roddick and Andy Murray. "Close your eyes, and 14 days later they'll be there. They're always there at the end -- just like Steffi [Graf] and Monica [Seles], Martina [Navratilova] and Chris [Evert]. It's unparalleled.

"They're going from clay to grass, but it doesn't matter. They are just freakin' great tennis players on any court. They can beat anybody, even the specialists on that surface. Whoever is going to win a major from them has to get himself six sets. At the moment, those are the toughest six outs in the history of tennis."

But the question must be asked: Will Nadal take enough momentum from his win in Paris to prevail on a less-friendly surface at Wimbledon? The King of Clay has won 52 of 53 matches at Roland Garros. At Wimbledon, he is a (slightly) more mortal 35-5.

"Actually, grass is a pretty good surface for Rafa," said Tennis Channel analyst Justin Gimelstob. "He gets more value for his serve. His backhand works better. Plus, he's forced to play with better court positioning, right up on the baseline. I think he has a better chance of winning Wimbledon than the U.S. Open.

"Djokovic deserves to be the favorite on the grass. The patterns dictate that. Rafa's ball doesn't get up on him as high. The serve is more effective. Djokovic takes the ball early and grass keeps it low. I think the margins swing to Djokovic."

It was an eventful week for Nadal after winning his record seventh French Open title. His only loss in Paris? A Richard Mille watch worth $370,000 -- a loaner -- that went missing from his hotel room. It was eventually recovered by police, who arrested a hotel employee.

On the grass in Halle, Germany, Nadal won his first doubles and singles matches but lost the second in each discipline. Philipp Kohlschreiber beat him 6-3, 6-4, ending a 13-match winning streak.

"It's more a tennis problem than a mental problem," Nadal said. "The transition is difficult. It depends how much time you have. Playing on grass can sometimes be a bit of a lottery."

The infamous British weather, according to Gilbert -- who will be on hand as an ESPN analyst -- is the only random force that could affect the outcome.

"If it's cool and damp, that favors Djokovic," he said. "If the sun is out and it's warmer, Rafa likes it better. It's better for his serve, and he can hit though the court. The thing about him at Wimbledon? Even when he's struggling, he has an unbelievable ability to take care of his serve."

The last guy to win a major before the big two? That would be the third member of the big three, Mr. Federer. The 2010 Australian Open champion turns 31 in August, but experts give him an outside chance -- perhaps his best remaining opportunity -- of adding to his record 16 major titles.

Federer, though, will enter Wimbledon coming off a stunning straight-sets loss to Tommy Haas in the final of the Gerry Weber Open on Sunday.

"Yeah, don't forget Roger Federer," said Gimelstob, "This is by far the best chance for him to win a Slam and be disruptive. He still has more variety than anyone else, and that's more conducive to winning on grass. He is still ahead of that next group with Murray and [Tomas] Berdych and [Juan Martin] del Potro."

Said Gilbert: "It's like an auto race; he's always in pole position. Fed just doesn't lose before the semis at these things. He's won the tournament six times, and he plays his best tennis on grass. Would it shock me if he won Wimbledon? No. I'd be more surprised if he did it on clay or at the U.S. Open."

Nadal leads the career head-to-head with Djokovic 19-14. It was a lot closer when Djokovic won seven straight against the Spaniard, but Rafa rallied to win all three of their meetings this year on red clay. They have met only three times on grass, with Nadal winning the first two. Djokovic beat him in four sets in last year's Wimbledon final.

Although his victories in the Monte Carlo and Rome finals helped change the temperature of their rivalry, Nadal would have been devastated if he hadn't prevailed in Paris.

"I had lost three Grand Slam finals in a row to him," Nadal said. "That's why it was important for me to win, and this is why I was a bit more nervous and there was a lot of emotion.

"I feel better than last year. Things change. We all have ups and downs, but at the end of the day, we were very close during that final."

That's not likely to change any time soon.

Greg Garber

Writer, Reporter
Greg Garber joined ESPN in 1991 and provides reports for NFL Countdown and SportsCenter. He is also a regular contributor to Outside the Lines and a senior writer for ESPN.com.