What’s a better match: Federer/Djokovic, Federer/Nadal, or Djokovic/Nadal?

If you were to ask me two or three years ago about who I would rather see Roger Federer play in a tennis match at a Grand Slam between Rafael Nadal and Novak Djokovic, the answer would easily have been Rafa. Federer and Rafa were engaged in a white-hot rivalry, which had produced some of the best major tournament tennis seen in ages, with the masterpiece being their match in 2008 at the Championships at Wimbledon. It was, at that point, the longest final that had ever been played, and even throughout countless rain delays, the intensity between the two players never died down. Roger was the five-time defending Wimbledon champion, and arguably one of the most formidable opponents to meet at the finals in London, and Rafa was the no-nonsense southpaw who has consistently made an embarrassment of Federer on clay, and was looking to win the first non-Parisian Grand Slam of his career. After four hours and 48 minutes, Rafael Nadal finally succeeded in defeating Roger Federer, winning his first Wimbledon, and the two of them making their mark in history.

That match was one of those matches where John McEnroe wouldn’t sit down in the commentators box. It was exciting from beginning to end, almost like great theater, with the rain delays serving as sort of an intermission. Since seeing the replay of that match, I thought that there would never be another singles competitor that could ever make Roger Federer play as well as he did that year.

I, of course, was greatly mistaken.

At that time, Novak Djokovic had just come off his win against Jo-Wilfred Tsonga to win his first Grand Slam, the 2008 Australian Open, which was also where he defeated Roger Federer in the semis in straight sets. He was riding a high, but yet he still wasn’t at the same level as either Roger or Rafa at that point, and was beaten in the second round of that year’s Wimbledon by semifinalist Marat Safin. However, fast forward two years later, and you’ll find the breaking point in Nole’s career. Ever since he led Serbia to winning their first ever Davis Cup, Djokovic has been nothing short of unstoppable going into 2011, and as the track record goes, he has only had two losses in 2011 – once in the semis of the French Open, and the other due to a shoulder injury in an ATP event, which forced him to withdraw. But apart from these two losses, Novak has pretty much dominated every other event he’s entered, which includes three Grand Slam trophies this year, and even carried a winning streak from the beginning of 2011. His extremely solid play against the other players in the top 10 fueled his meteoric rise to the #1 ranking. And recently, his matches against the other two players in the top 3 have been nothing to be excited about – he’s dominated them both, making it less appealing since it almost feels like I know what’s going to happen.

Or do I? All this time, I rooted for Roger to go up against Rafa because I knew that it would be a great match, but that was until I saw the 2011 French Open semifinal between Federer and Djokovic. In that match, I saw something from Roger Federer that I haven’t seen since before he played against Sampras at Wimbledon in 2001. Federer has always been the picture of level-headedness on the courts today, but that day, he threw all of that out the window and became hyper-aggressive. In fact, to be quite honest, he transformed himself into a more contained version of the semi-volcanic, arrogant bastard that he was before the turn of the century. He knew that he had a game that could beat Djokovic, but his problem was that he was being exploited mentally by Novak’s surges of emotion.

Now, everyone that’s into tennis knows that Novak Djokovic is an incredibly arrogant person. When thrown into the top 10, he’s seen as an abrasive person to deal with – the type that will mockingly imitate his competitors and say that he’s the best, but also has the game to back up his claims. When going against him in a match, you can’t just be a good player and keep your composure – you have to take it to him. In recent matches, that’s been the problem with Nadal when he goes against Novak. He’s not very subtle when it comes to his game plan – big topspin forehands to a righty backhand, and amazingly aggressive returns from well beyond the baseline. But Rafa isn’t the type that’s overtly “in your face” apart from the shots he makes. He’s very statuesque when it comes to his mental game, but it doesn’t do anything to Djokovic, who’s somewhat unimpressed by stoicism.

But Roger decided to surprise Novak at the French Open. Roger purposefully played much more aggressive and in-your-face tennis, both technically and mentally. In every one of his movements in that match, he was telling Novak “There’s just no way you’re as good as I am today. You have to beat ME.” He treated him like a child, almost like he was putting him in his place. In fact, Roger played the arrogant card that day better than Novak could ever play it. And Novak was stunned by it. He had always thought his exquisite play and holier-than-thou personality would be able to stifle his competition up until that point. It was a huge disappointment, especially because that match signified the end of a monumental winning streak for that year – one which hadn’t been seen since back in the days of John McEnroe.

In the end, if you had to ask me, I would much rather see Federer play Djokovic, because it’s the only time where he literally becomes a different person in order to play. It’s one of the few times that you get to see Roger’s dark side, which is a polar opposite from the more fluid and composed Roger that’s won 16 Grand Slam tournaments. As much as I would love to say that Federer and Nadal would put up a better match, I feel that Federer and Nadal have too much respect for each other. They’ve learned how to co-exist with one another. There’s really no tension between the two of them, apart from the fact that they both want to win. With Novak, there’s more tension because he’s made himself an a target that’s begging to be hit, and with his game, it’s pretty difficult to hit that target. If you asked a tennis player, they’d probably say they want to win against a Federer or a Nadal, but against Novak, they just want to kick his ass. And so far, only one player this year has actually been able to do it.

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