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Novak Djokovic and Rafael Nadal: A New Wrinkle in a Historic Rivalry

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COMMENTARY | In 2013, Novak Djokovic and Rafael Nadal took their historic rivalry to new all-time heights on the men's professional tennis tour.

Firstly, they set the new Open Era record for the most meetings between any two rivals in history at 39 total meetings. Additionally, the two players brought their total meetings in a final up to 19, one short of the existing record.

Aside from those impressive numbers in 2013, Djokovic and Nadal already held the record for the longest Grand Slam final in the modern era at 5 hours, 53 minutes in Australia.

It's mind-boggling to think that they are both just a shade past their mid-20s, which suggests together they could set some truly insurmountable records by the time it's all said and done.

Considering all these two have gone through together on a tennis court, it's certain they know each other's on-court personalities about as well as anyone possibly could. They've passed side-by-side into history through some of the best and worst moments in each other's respective careers.

For Nadal, there was probably no lower moment than when he lost the fifth set of that final in Australia to Djokovic in 2012 -- his third straight loss in a major final against the Serb. In that one, Nadal even held a solid lead at one point in the last set, before ultimately succumbing to the seemingly endless reserves of Djokovic.

Nadal did bounce back and subsequently defeat Djokovic during both the final and semifinal of the French Open during 2012 and 2013. Djokovic was on a quest to complete the career Grand Slam during both of those matches, and surely felt emotional turmoil after failing on both occasions.

Each player has also witnessed some of his rival's greatest moments. Djokovic was on court in New York recently when Nadal won his second career US Open title after a long layoff from the game. An injury sabbatical in which Nadal must have surely questioned his continuing ability to play at such a high level on hard court.

Likewise, Nadal was present when Djokovic finally won the title at Wimbledon in 2011. This has to be one of the greatest moments in Djokovic's career, beating a player of Nadal's caliber on such hallowed ground.

It's stunning to think how often the two have watched each other express uninhibited moments of pure joy as well as unfiltered pain. In reaching their respective career achievements, they've thrown everything but the kitchen sink at each other with the intent to physically knock the other off the court of play.

Such fierce competition typically requires a feeling of disdain for one's opponent, because in the end there can be only one winner.

This is exactly the place where the Djokovic and Nadal rivalry seems to veering off from other notable rivalries in the game. Despite causing each other great professional agony during the span of their rivalry, the two now appear to be growing closer in terms of mutual respect and friendship.

The vast number of photos taken of Djokovic and Nadal during their current exhibition tour through South America illustrates this new wrinkle in their relationship very well.

Through the latter part of November, the world's top two players have been traveling through South America playing exhibition matches alongside the retirement party of David Nalbandian.

In the Patagonia of southern Argentina, they recently played a lighthearted exhibition on a floating barge parked next to a beautiful glacier. They followed up that tennis match by visiting the La Bombonera, the soccer stadium of the famous Boca Juniors in Buenos Aires. Djokovic and Nadal were photographed sharing some fun antics while competing in a friendly penalty shootout competition.

This casual good-natured fun is the exact spot where their rivalry looks to be diverging from others in recent memory.

Although Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal are always careful to speak with great respect about the other in public, it would be difficult to describe their relationship as "warm." This may be due to the fact that the players are closer in terms of professional achievement and are still in the midst of a historic arms race.

In the history of the Open Era, there are more examples that follow this somewhat "chilly" rivalry model than not -- Andre Agassi vs. Pete Sampras, Jimmy Connors vs. John McEnroe, and Ivan Lendl vs. John McEnroe, to name a few.

The pictures in South America this week illustrate very clearly that Djokovic and Nadal are kindred spirits beyond their extensive talents on a tennis court.

Consequently, one now has to wonder how or if this seemingly new dimension to the Djokovic and Nadal rivalry will affect their future confrontations. In the past, the two seemed to take a much more warrior-oriented stance to their matches, highlighted by Djokovic literally tearing the shirt off his body on a couple occasions.

One has to wonder if that type of edge will ever again characterize the rivalry.

The two did play a riveting and fierce match during the semifinals of the French Open this year. However, their match at the US Open later in the season was somewhat less charged by their high standards. The latter dynamics could have been related to the fact that both players were somewhat diminished emotionally and physically after a long season.

On the other hand, it's also possible that the two may have reached such a deep level of mutual respect and comfort that they can no longer hate the other enough on the court of play to produce that kind of raw warrior instinct.

It's obviously impossible to predict the future dynamic of a rivalry, especially given that no further meetings are even guaranteed anytime soon. But it's entirely possible that if Novak were to further close the Grand Slam gap between himself and Nadal that their off-court relationship could become more strained, resulting in the same type of gladiator-style battles we've seen in the past.

No matter what happens in the future, it's refreshing to see on-court rivals treat each other with so much respect and admiration off the court. If that type of behavior doesn't produce the same insane quality of tennis that we were all becoming accustomed to, than so be it.

The example this type of laudable relationship sets for the rest of mankind is far more important.

Andrew Prochnow is a derivatives trader by day and a tennis buff by night. Tweet him @AndrewProchnow.

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