COMMENTARY | Rafael Nadal has been riding quite the roller coaster on the men's professional tennis tour since the middle of last year -- culminating in his recent accession as the world's top player.
Nadal's dominance in 2013 will likely be interpreted in many unknown ways as it fades into history. However, one facet of Nadal's sensational year that demands immediate attention is the rejuvenation of his rivalry with Novak Djokovic.
During 2013, Rafael Nadal and Novak Djokovic ventured into undiscovered country as it relates to rivalries in the history of men's tennis.
During the finals of the China Open in Beijing earlier this month, Nadal and Djokovic competed in their 38th match. A new record for the sport in the Open Era and one more than the previous mark set by John McEnroe and Ivan Lendl.
Beyond this stunning number of absolute meetings and top quality play, their rivalry has also been characterized by dynamic changes in momentum.
Early on, Nadal built a convincing 14-4 head-to-head record in their first 18 matches. An edge that slipped precipitously away as Djokovic famously beat Nadal in seven consecutive finals over the course of 2011 and early 2012.
Since the Masters tournament in Monte Carlo during 2012, Nadal has wrestled back considerable momentum and has taken six of their last eight matches -- as well as a 22-16 career edge.
What boggles the mind is that such a competitive rivalry materialized on the heels of the Federer-Nadal era. The latter being a rivalry that many surmised might never be matched.
Who would have ever predicted that one of the most entertaining rivalries of all time would be quickly followed by one of the most competitive?
Against Federer, Nadal established a very clear and decisive edge in head-to-head competition -- currently notched at 21-10. Together, their contrasting styles mesmerized viewers across the world and brought rockstar-like attention to each athlete. But despite several high-profile matches, the balance of power has always been firmly nestled in Nadal's favor.
Against Djokovic, the man from Mallorca was at times made to look like more mortal. The stamina and physicality Rafa so often used to push his opponent's off the court and into the runner-up press conference was redirected back at him with even stingier resolve.
From the Wimbledon final in 2011 through the Australian Open final in 2012 it appeared as if Djokovic might permanently become Nadal's Kryptonite, just as Nadal had so often been to Federer.
Then came 2013. A year in which the Spaniard obliterated that hypothesis.
First came the epic contest between Djokovic and Nadal in the semifinals of the 2013 French Open. A match many have called the greatest ever played on clay. A match that Nadal ultimately won by a score of 9-7 in the fifth set.
Next, Nadal ventured beyond his refuge on red dirt and defeated Djokovic during the semifinals of the Canadian Open. A gripping and tense encounter that offered a glimpse of Nadal's new-found confidence and tactics on hard court.
In the finals of the 2013 US Open, Nadal made one of the loudest statements in his career by breaking down an opponent that had nearly destroyed him. A signature win with ramifications well beyond the 6-2, 3-6, 6-4, 6-1 score line.
In New York, Nadal utilized a remodeled strategy against Djokovic that featured aggressive offense combined with disciplined defense.
One of the most prominent changes was a frequently utilized single-handed backhand slice that helped neutralize the near-lethal double-handed backhand of Djokovic. In using this low-bouncing shot to maintain or reclaim court position, Nadal bought himself more opportunities to unleash his blistering forehand.
The slice shot also confounded the masterful double-handed backhand of Djokovic by bouncing below his comfort zone, consequently leading to an increased number of unforced errors from the Serb.
By winning the match, Nadal reclaimed the all-important psychological advantage -- the value of which cannot be underestimated in a hyper-competitive rivalry with razor-thin margins for error.
Looking beyond 2013, the most striking take-away from Nadal's recent success against Djokovic may be the juxtaposition of those results alongside Roger Federer's failure to produce the strokes or tactics necessary to consistently solve Nadal -- especially after his leading position was usurped.
After the 2008 Wimbledon final in which Nadal bested Federer in five glorious sets, the Swiss has never again defeated Nadal in Grand Slam competition. In the wake of the 2012 Australian Open final, it was entirely possible that Nadal could have walked down the same deflating path with Djokovic.
The fact that Nadal picked himself up off the ground and valiantly battled back will only add to his legacy -- as well as to the legacy of his rivalry with Djokovic.
The stratospheric international popularity of Roger Federer will without question make his matches with Nadal some of the most celebrated in history.
But in terms of competitiveness, there seems to be little doubt that Novak Djokovic is the greatest rival Rafael Nadal has ever had.
The best part is that these two players are only one year apart in age, which means their intertwined paths in professional tennis may not end anytime soon.
Andrew Prochnow is a derivatives trader by day and a tennis buff by night. Tweet him @AndrewProchnow.
- Sports & Recreation
- Rafael Nadal
- Novak Djokovic