Rafanole revisited

In WAG’s July 2012 “Going for the Gold” issue, I wrote a piece about rivalries in which I suggested that the rivalry between Rafael Nadal and Novak Djokovic may be not only THE tennis rivalry, but the rivalry of our time. Others demurred, yet as Rafa himself might say, Time has borne this out, no?

Later today at the US Open, “Rafanole” – as the rivalry is called, after their nicknames – will take center stage for a record-breaking 37th time. That’s the thing about rivalries: They must be tested over a long period.

But it isn’t just about quantity, it’s about quality, too. The New York Times called their French Open semifinal match this year – let’s face it, it was the real final – “a masterpiece.” Grantland, which does some of the best sportswriting on the Web, titled it “Metal Gods on Fire”:

“Rafa Nadal’s best matches against Novak Djokovic,” Brian Phillips wrote rather orgasmically there, “are the closest tennis gets to a metal concert — sweaty, technically proficient, fury-bellowing men assisting each other in the commission of extreme assaults on the senses. If you watched their testosterone-soaked, six-hour doomfest in the Australian Open final last year, you know this already. There aren’t really strategies in play when they meet, because that would imply that either of them had exploitable weaknesses. Instead, it’s just an all-out frenzy to play faster, louder, longer, and with less mercy. It’s phenomenal theater, even if the laser projections of dragons bursting from the eye sockets of red skulls are mostly left to your imagination.”

Of course, Shane Ryan, writing on the same Grantland site, rightly deemed their 2011 French Open final “an absolute mess,” with Rafa, in a devil of a mood, complaining endlessly to the umpire about how “you made us play in the rain,” and Nole, who was actually coping better with the elements, nonetheless taking out his frustrations with his racket on a Perrier sign and a bench. (“I can relate,” John McEnroe commented amusingly from the NBC booth.) And don’t even get me started on lens gate, that ridiculous match in which Nole lost his contact lens and Rafa went ballistic.

But then, that is what makes Rafanole special. It is a real relationship, albeit one increasingly defined by loss. Let’s be honest here: Novandy (Novak plus Andy Murray) is just two guys who’ve been “mates,” as Andy puts it, from their junior days, slugging it out from the baseline. It’s fine but not distinctive. And the vaunted Fedal – and I know I’m going to hear from the Federinas and the Nadalistas on this one – was always more of a manufactured rivalry, fabricated by hopeful fans, eager advertisers, lazy reporters and diehard traditionalists who lived under the illusion that Roger Federer and Rafa alone were the class acts while Nole, Andy and company were low-rent. Let’s just say that Roger and Rafa singly and together were often more gracious in victory than in defeat.

But Rafanole is the real thing, punctuated by ticks and quirks – the endless ball-bouncing (Nole); the lining up of water bottles by the chair and the Nike emblems on the socks (Rafa); the imploring to Heaven (Nole); the refusal to step on any lines unless the ball is in play (Rafa); the yanking of the pants from the butt (Rafa); the imitations of yanking the pants (Nole); the cast of supporting “teams,” including dueling stage parents (Rafa’s Uncle Toni, Nole’s father Srdjan) and WAGs who have business careers (Rafa’s girlfriend Maria Francisca Perello, known as Xisca; and Nole’s Jelena Ristic).

And then there’s the off-court story. I mean, these are two guys who have shared doubles (they were terrible), card games, soccer tennis (you use your feet instead of a racket), Broadway musicals, video games, dinners and even a hot tub together. If that’s not a bromance, what is?

Srdjan Djokovic got into trouble – and earned a quick Twitter lob from Rafa – for telling a Serbian newspaper recently that the Butch and Sundance relationship ain’t what it used to be since Nole became No. 1. But you know what? All you had to do was follow them to the net post-match to know that. When Rafa wins, it’s a hug fest between the two. When Nole wins, not so much.

I think the saddest image I’ve ever seen of their rivalry is their embrace after the almost six-hour 2012 Australian Open final that is the longest Slam final and one of the finest matches ever. As Nole – less the winner than the ultimate survivor – buries his face in Rafa’s shoulder holding him, Rafa hugs him with one arm while his racket arm resists, hanging dead – a symbol of everything that’s been gained and lost.

Rafa is expected to take tonight’s final. He’s had a much better year and the momentum is with him, although Nole’s played better in the four Slams and will still be ranked No. 1, win or lose. (In tennis, it’s all about defending your points and consistency in the Slams.)

Nevertheless, nobody is better with his back to the wall than Nole. And nobody can make him pay for it like Rafa.

It’s going to be brutal, no? Two gladiators in heat, a dance of love and death.

*UPDATE*

Just clawing my way back to the surface of the earth, having descended to Fashion Week Hell, and catching up with the US Open men’s final. (I know, better late than never.) And what did I tell you. Did we see Rafa put his head on Nole’s shoulder? Would he have done so if the situation were reversed? Yeah, right.  I mean, we love Rafa, too, but as Henry James would say, with a view. Stay tuned for the next encounter.

For more on Djokovic and the US Open, check out WAG’s August “S’wellness” issue.

– Georgette Gouveia

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