“You’re only as good as your opponent makes you play,” Martina Navratilova observes in “Strokes of Genius.” It’s a documentary about Rafael Nadal’s hard-fought triumph over Roger Federer in the 2008 Wimbledon final, which Jon Wertheim describes in his book of the same name as the greatest tennis match to date.
Navratilova was talking, of course, of her own rivalry with Chris Evert – tennis’ longest and, some would say, best, ranked ahead of Fedal (Federer-Nadal) and, our favorite, Rafanole (Nadal and Novak Djokovic, so-called for their nicknames). In her observation, Navratilova hit on a glorious irony: A rival – not just an opponent but a real rival – may mean you will win less but you’ll be better at what you do.
We were reminded of this as the two-year-old exhibition Laver Cup concluded Sunday, Sept. 23, with Team Europe defeating Team World once again. Leading Team Europe this year were Federer and Djokovic, whose rivalry has been overshadowed by their separate rivalries with Nadal. There had been some bad blood between them going back to the Djoker’s punk, puffed-up youth and Fed’s dismissiveness of some “lucky” Nole wins. Plus, let’s face it, Fedal was already well-established when Nole began his ascent. To some, he must’ve seemed like a third wheel and Rafanole a lesser rivalry than Fedal, even though Nadal and Djokovic have faced each other more than Federer and Nadale (52 times versus 38 times) and have had more of a seesaw battle. But now married fathers in their 30s and with Rafa temporarily sidelined by a bum right knee, Federer and Djokovic put on a show in Chicago, along with many of the top male stars of the game, even if they did lose their doubles match. Djokovic even managed to hit Federer accidentally with a shot, proving that singles and doubles are two different animals.
Are they besties – as The New York Times’ headline proclaimed? Federer said he and Djokovic won’t be vacationing together any time soon, but the Djoker added that they will be back as a doubles team – to improve their 0-1 record.
While experts point to the pitfalls of friendly rivalry, there have been rivals who are real friends, as in Evert and Navratilova who tried hard to dislike each other then wound up traveling and eating together. (Today, they still talk regularly and have been known to go fall antiquing on Long Island.)
It should also be noted that Team Europe and Team World were captained respectively by two men who made up one of the greatest of friendly rivalries – Björn Borg and John McEnroe.
In the end, a little camaraderie – kind of like baseball’s “All-Star Game” – may be a mini vacation for players in a sport known for its singular, um, singularity.
Nick Kyrgios, tennis’ reigning bad boy, captured that sentiment when he said, “If somehow tennis was like this every week of the year, it would be so much more enjoyable.”
For more, check out August WAG’s tennis coverage and my blog.
— Georgette Gouveia