The U.S. Open final was a five-set battle between Andy Murray and Novak Djokovic that stretched nearly five hours. With Roger Federer losing in the quarterfinals and Rafael Nadal out resting his knees, Murray and Djokovic took center stage to grind it out for the year’s final major.
This week on The Toss, Brodie Elgin, the tennis blogger over at Mind The Racket, joins to discuss the growing rivalry between the two U.S. Open finalists.
Today’s Toss: Are Andy Murray and Novak Djokovic the next great rivalry in men’s tennis?
Courtney Nguyen: Thanks for joining me on this week’s Toss, Brodie. Your Canadian-to-the-core personality is perfect this week as we’re coming off an exciting U.S. Open men’s final. Andy Murray took down Novak Djokovic in a near five-hour battle to end the 76-year drought for British men at the Slams. In so doing, the two 25-year olds, who were born a week apart, locked horns in a cramp-inducing display of aggressive counterpunching until, rather surprisingly, it was Murray’s physicality that won the day. To be honest, I can’t say this is a final that I’ll be popping into my DVD player — the wind unfortunately detracted from the pure level of tennis these two are typically known for — but it was undeniably an entertaining, dramatic, and memorable end to, well, an entertaining, dramatic, and memorable U.S. Open.
With the win, Murray finally kicked down the door to the Big Three’s clubhouse, and we can now write about the Big Four without Federer, Nadal and Djokovic fans crying foul. But much of what drives our desire to even anoint a Big Three or Big Four are the rivalries they’ve created. Federer and Nadal is the paramount example. Their contrast in styles — righty vs. lefty, Rafa’s forehand to Federer’s backhand, pure offense vs. defense — has yielded some of the greatest matches we’ve seen in tennis. Djokovic and Nadal can’t help but play long, physically taxing, grinding matches — see the 2012 Australian Open final and the 2009 Madrid semifinal — that showcase their tremendous defense and physicality. And then there’s Federer and Djokovic. Their matches have a psychological edge to them that makes you wonder if Novak once kicked Roger’s puppy or something.
Which brings us to Murray vs. Djokovic. More so than any of the other pairings, Murray and Djokovic are actually really good friends. There’s a tremendous amount of respect between them and Djokovic’s success over the last few years lit a fire under the Brit, who was more of a late bloomer who, as we saw on Monday, bloomed nonetheless.
So with Federer getting up in the years (yet still playing mindblowing tennis, it should be said) and Rafa concerned about his knees, is the Murray-Djokovic rivalry the next great rivalry in tennis?
Sound off, Brodes.
Brodie Elgin: Thanks for having me, Courtney. Unfortunately, I don’t think Djokovic-Murray will be our next “great rivalry” in what continues to be a golden age for men’s tennis. The greatest rivalries in the history of tennis were usually those that involved two players who had considerable ground on the rest of the field. Assuming Djokovic-Murray will be a common occurrence in 2013 has to assume the absence of the two greatest players of this era, Federer and Nadal.
It is difficult to predict how both of these players will do in 2013, but not impossible. Federer has shown that despite crossing the 30-year line, he still has a lot of energy and a lot of tennis left in him. While he is more prone to having things break down on him later in tournaments, he has made, and I’m estimating here, 7,000 straight Slam quarterfinals and his win at Wimbledon this year shows that he is still more than up for winning major titles on faster surfaces.
There is a similar storyline for Nadal. The health of his knees will continue to be an issue throughout the rest of his career. However, many people were ready to write him off in 2009 after he withdrew from Wimbledon due to knee pain, and he returned in 2010 to have the greatest year of his career, winning three straight major titles. At age 26, just a year older than Djokovic and Murray, health is a factor for the Spaniard, but age is not. He’s shown he can rebound, and he still has the time to do so. And motivation to do so most certainly is not an issue.
All of this leaves out the existence of Juan Martin del Potro, Jo-Wilfried Tsonga and Tomas Berdych, all of who have had major wins over the top four and test them consistently at the Slams. If nothing else, it will be difficult for Murray to gain second place in the computer rankings and for Djokovic to stay the course at No. 1. While the “Big Four” has been a term thrown around for years, the trophies still landed consistently in the hands of Federer and Nadal.
Each of the four won a major this year. We may now be finally seeing more of a level playing field between them, without a real emphasis or regularity of a Djokovic-Murray rivalry, or any rivalry for that matter.
Nguyen: Trust me, I’m not writing off Roger or Rafa in the slightest. Those two will still be playing at an extremely high level and winning Slams over the next few years, of that I am certain. Their rivalries with each other and with Djokovic and Murray will continue on much to the chagrin of no one. I’m not arguing that Murray-Dkokovic will overtake any existing rivalries to become THE rivalry to watch in men’s tennis. Federer-Nadal, Djokovic-Federer, and Nadal-Djokovic are still the headliners for the reasons I cited before.
But I’m not sure how you can argue that it’s not the next great rivalry in men’s tennis. It has everything you want in a rivalry. Their head-to-head is relatively even, with Djokovic barely ahead at 8-7. Novak won their two meetings on clay, while Andy ruled their only meeting on grass. That leaves the bulk of their matches on hardcourts, the favorite surface of both, which pits Djokovic’s consistency — Murray called him “a wall” — against the Brit’s variety and “junk” (again, Andy’s words, not mine). Granted it’s not the stark contrast of styles that Federer-Nadal brings. But it’s a subtle difference, and as their games continue to improve, the dynamics of their rivalry will too.
Aside from their game styles, we also have to recognize that anytime these two play it’s going to be a match that matters. Since 2009, all of their matches but one have been semifinals or finals at either a Slam, Masters 1000, or the Olympics (the exception being Dubai this year). That adds a sense of urgency to their matches that you’re simply not going to get from any rivalry involving Ferrer, Del Potro, Berdych, or Tsonga. As excited as I may get about a Tsonga-Djokovic match or a Berdych-Murray match, these aren’t coming in the late stages of the tournament.
This is what makes the rivalries among the Big Thr– excuse me — the Big Four so compelling. They only play each other on the big stages, they play when titles are on the line, and they’re so dominant that they’re actually playing each other all the time. Now that Murray has broken through and proven that he can beat the guys ahead of him and win a major, the dynamic between them changes dramatically.
Besides, rivalries aren’t rivalries just because you play each other all the time. The greatest rivalries offer a compelling clash between two players who are going to be going for the biggest prizes. What distinguishes the Murray-Djokovic rivalry from the Nadal/Federer/Djokovic triangle, is that Murray and Djokovic consider themselves peers in the way they didn’t see Nadal. The three are close in age, but remember: Nadal was No. 2 in the world at 19 years old. No way that Murray and Djokovic, each 18 at the time, were thinking “Oh yeah, Rafa is just like us!” In addition, Murray and Djokovic are actually friends in a way that no permutation of the Big Four is. So when it comes to genuine camaraderie between two competitors boosting a rivalry, Murray-Djokovic have that in buckets.
So yes, I do think Murray-Djokovic will be the next great rivalry in men’s tennis. I mean, what other potential rivalry could you point to, Brodie? And don’t say Raonic. No need for your Canadian homerism around these parts.
Elgin: Sure, Murray and Djokovic will likely play a few times next year in important matches. But there’s certainly no guarantee they’ll all be championship matches, nor that they will be of the highest quality. Remember: The wind destroyed the quality of the first couple of sets in their nearly five-hour U.S. Open final, then Djokovic charged through the third and fourth sets before running out of steam in the fifth.
There were entertaining points, but it was admittedly not of the highest quality. Both players tend to thrive off defense and returning well; similar approaches seemed to cancel themselves out through the course of the match. The greatest rivalries in tennis have been based on varying styles. The big serving Sampras against the big returning Agassi, or the natural, laser precision of Federer versus the warhorse, workman Nadal. The rivalries were built for automatic quality, regardless of the round, regardless of the surface. Each player had their strength, and each player had their weakness. It made it simple for audiences, and produced highly entertaining tennis.
Likewise, personalities in the greatest rivalries, both on and off court, often divided fans down the middle. The insult hurling, steaming McEnroe against the calm and clear Borg or the “ice man” Lendl, or the all-American Sampras against the rule-breaking bad boy Agassi. On and off court differences have long divided Federer and Nadal fans. As easy as it was to come up for reasons to like one, it was just as easy to come up for reasons for not liking the other.
Their countries of birth, Scotland and Serbia, clearly bring their own flock of fans to the Murray and Djokovic camps, but the rest of us are likely to remain largely indifferent. Both players have a similar disposition on court. They’re fiery, sarcastic, and fond of gesturing and even yelling at their boxes. They play similarly defensive styles and are incredibly well-rounded players. The differences are much
slimmer than rivalries of the past, and even less obvious to those who do not follow the sport regularly.
In other words, just because the two are likely to play many more important matches, this is nothing new and does not necessarily make up a “great” rivalry. And while it is great that the two are good friends, it is never going to have the competitive fire of the rivalries mentioned above. In reality, it is nothing more than it has been already — a series of important matches late in major tournaments.
In my opinion, as del Potro continues to improve, he has a legitimate chance of creating a rivalry with either Murray or Djokovic, particularly the latter. Their second set at the U.S. Open was one of the best all week, and the contrast in styles is one to savor. He also edged out Djokovic in the bronze medal match on a surface he has typically struggled on. The big man has his game back, and is also a threat on clay much in the style of Soderling; something Murray is not. If he runs into any of the top four next year on a regular basis, we may be right back in the same debate.