COMMENTARY | Novak Djokovic is ranked No. 1 and recently won a record third consecutive Australian Open title. Yet when it comes to the hearts and minds of tennis fans, Djokovic remains sort of a third wheel.
Despite his reign as No. 1 on the ATP tour, Djokovic takes a backseat to fan-favorites Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal. The match between Federer and Nadal in the quarterfinals at the BNP Paribas Open at Indian Wells -- 10 p.m. EST, March 14 -- will be their 29th meeting.
Nadal leads the series 18-10. Nineteen of their matches have been in the finals. The last time these two met in a non-final was 2004.
"In the past this match used to be a final, now it's a quarterfinal, so obviously it's a bit of bad luck of the draw for both of us," Federer told reporters in a press conference following his 6-3, 6-7 (4), 7-5 win over Stanislas Wawrinka.
"We're both a bit suspect," Federer said, noting neither is quite 100 percent.
Doesn't matter how "suspect" Federer and Nadal are, people love to see them do battle. Because their matches have delivered so much in the past, fans get giddy about rematches. We remember thrillers like the 2008 Wimbledon final, a five-set classic, and the 2009 Australian Open, Nadal's first Grand Slam win on hard courts.
Certainly, Djokovic has had his share of dramatic matches against Federer and Nadal. But when Djokovic finally broke through to win his first Grand Slam, the 2008 Australian Open, he seemed more like an interloper than an invited guest.
Djokovic never received the love Andy Murray got after his first Grand Slam victory. You could almost hear the collective sigh from fans when Murray defeated Federer in the 2012 Olympics. Then Murray received a warm "Welcome to the Big Four" after he won the 2012 U.S. Open.
No such love for Djokovic, who crashed the private party Nadal and Federer seemed to be having.
Only a year apart, Djokovic and Nadal are contemporaries. They've played each other 33 times, with Nadal holding a 19-14 edge. Yet it's the rivalry between Nadal and Federer that has enthralled fans for years.
Thrilling and entertaining, Djokovic rarely fails to put on a good show. However, the Federer vs. Nadal act continues to get top billing.
A former reporter for Sports Illustrated, Merlisa competes in USTA leagues. She wrote the foreword for Arthur Ashe, Jr.'s "A Hard Road to Glory: Track & Field". Follow her on Twitter: @merlisa.