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Tennis

Nadal-Djokovic rivalry lacks certain something; more mail

Photo: Clive Brunskill/Getty Images

No. 2 Novak Djokovic (left) and No. 1 Rafael Nadal have played 39 times, an Open era record.

Two notes before we start:

1. The 2014 Hall of Fame ballots are out. As we've done in the past, I'll turn my ballot into your ballot and vote according to you guys. The candidates are Lindsay Davenport, Mary Pierce and Conchita Martinez. To spare the in-box, vote via Twitter @jon_wertheim.

2. Nathaniel Boni Aserios of Cebu, Philippines, writes: "I am reaching out to you for assistance in spreading the word to your followers/readers regarding the recent typhoon that swept through the Philippines last Friday. More than 2,000 people have died from one of the strongest storms on record, and the decimation has affected hundreds of thousands of people. We need all the help that we can get to provide assistance to the victims." Click here for information about how to help and where to donate.

Rafael Nadal vs. Novak Djokovic is the greatest men's tennis rivalry ever, right? They've played the most matches head-to-head. They've met in the finals of every Grand Slam tournament. They've played many tight matches in the Slams. They have a close record, and it's rare that there's a heavy favorite for any match they play. What sayeth JW?
-- Daniel Rabbitt, Morrisville, N.C.

• Um ... well ... hold on, I have to take this call on my other line. Honestly, I am stumped here. Nadal and Djokovic have played each other more times (39) than anyone in the Open era. Nadal leads the head-to-head 22-17 -- far more competitive than Nadal's series with Roger Federer, who trails 22-10. Nadal has met Djokovic in the final of every major, plus the year-end shebang. (Federer and Nadal have never played at the U.S. Open.) Djokovic on Monday beat Nadal for the third time in 2013. Fittingly, Nadal had beaten Djokovic three times this year as well. Oh, and they are born barely a year apart, meaning that we're not left feeling as though one is past his prime when they play.

So, why is this not trumpeted as the great rivalry in sports, much less in tennis? Why do many consider it second to Nadal-Federer?

I'm at something of a loss here. Here's the best I can come up with: Nadal-Federer is (was?) such a vivid contrast in styles -- the easy grace of Federer versus the toil and trouble of Nadal, celestial versus earthbound, lefty versus righty, flight versus fight. (Why, you could almost write an entire book about it.) Apart from fans suffering from "rivalry fatigue" -- casting their lot with either Federer or Nadal -- and not having the capital to invest in another rivalry, Nadal-Djokovic doesn't quite play out on the court. The matches are long and hard-fought, but they're seldom pretty. And they don't offer the same clash of styles.

If it feels like I'm rationalizing the grasping, well, you got me. Empirically and rationally, Nadal-Djokovic ought to be the ultimate rivalry. It just doesn't quite feel like it. Yet.

NGUYEN: Grading the ATP World Tour Finals

On Monday evening, I am checking the mobile website of ESPN (the network that televised the final of the ATP World Tour Finals) and the match did not make the top five stories at the top of the page, nor is there a link in any of the 10 or so secondary stories on the main page. Yes, the match does get a small mention on the regular website, but you would think the "network that covers the majors" would provide more coverage.
-- John, Greenville, S.C.

• When -- if? -- the ATP ever gets around to hiring a CEO, here's some advice for the new boss: Commission a panel to study how tennis can get out of this vicious media cycle. The sport is promoted horribly and is in a long-term abusive relationship with television. Thus the ratings and metrics are lousy. Citing the lousy ratings, the networks continue to treat tennis shabbily.

I'm telling you, I've been in these conversations and they go something like this:

Network: "How can we take tennis seriously when some Serb plays someone from Bohemia and they do ratings that rival a test pattern?"

Tennis: "When you bury tennis and shift starting times and don't promote the sport on your other platforms and dismiss players if they're not from the markets you prefer, you're already dooming the sport."

Network: "Maybe you misunderstand. I have nothing against tennis. My wife still plays at the club. It's just that from a P&L perspective, I can't justify a 45-second clip on SportsCenter -- much less real programming time and money -- for two guys viewers don't care about."

What is the greater blemish on each player's résumé: Federer's 10-22 record against Nadal or Nadal's never having won the sport's fifth-biggest tournament, the ATP World Tour Finals? Isn't tennis about how you do against the entire field (in this case, the top eight players in a season), not just one player?
-- Gregory Mathews, Milwaukee

• Federer's head-to-head record against Nadal is the great mar on his escutcheon, the zit on his résumé, as we get our mixed metaphors on. But it doesn't preclude him from consideration for the title of greatest of all time. Likewise, Nadal's failure to win a Tour Finals title is not insignificant. Apart from competing against the best of the best, this event is a testament to durability. Who has some petrol in the tank after the 10-month-road trip? Yet, again, Nadal's shortcomings here don't nullify his other achievements or take him out of GOAT contention.

If forced to choose, I would say Federer's dismal record against his chief rival is the blacker of the black marks.

Nadal: Federer or Laver is best of all time right now

I think you do a disservice to younger readers unfamiliar with Jimmy Connors' career by airbrushing his image so thoroughly. History's most egregious players have almost always been "authentic" characters who "took ownership of their personalities." Worst of all, you imply that Arthur Ashe somehow had a grudging admiration for him. You might send your younger readers to a link describing Connors' behavior for Ashe's Davis Cup team in Sweden. Ashe's quote (if true), about how Connors is "our $(*@!>," may well have been made while he was trying to get Connors to play. Isn't it important to make the point that excellence in performance shouldn't be used as an excuse for bad behavior?
-- Elsie Misbourne, Washington, D.C.

• First, the quote. I've heard two variations -- the one used in last week's mailbag and another that my friend Pete Bodo mentioned in his book Courts of Babylon. During Connors' semifinal run at the 1991 U.S. Open, Bodo asked Ashe, "Is Connors just an ass----?" Ashe's quote: "Yeah, but he's my favorite ass----."

Your larger point is well-taken. But I think we're on the same page, and neither I nor the 30 for 30 documentary "airbrushed" Connors at all. Much was loathsome and indefensible about his conduct. Even accounting for "another era," there was a surfeit of ugliness and bad behavior. (Aside: For as much as we talk about "coarsening standards," the sport is infinitely more civil today than it was a quarter-century ago. We complain about fist pumps and stall tactics. Not a lot of top players now, though, are calling officials "abortions," pantomiming sex with their racket or fighting other players on the changeovers.) Anyway, my point was this: For all the fraudulence you see in sports -- the defiant rectitude of Lance Armstrong; Tiger Woods, emblem of dignity, rolling around with porn stars -- at least Connors copped to his boorishness.

How do you like this comparison: Forrest Griffin as the Andy Roddick of MMA? Big, strong guys whose athletic abilities were limited in comparison to their peers', but they nonetheless briefly reached the top of their sports through hard work (and a little luck). Their successes dwindled after that, and they spent the last few years of their careers known more for being characters (and for being capable of giving remarkably humorous appraisals of their most embarrassing defeats). Finally, they quit when injuries mounted, but their personalities guarantee them a role in the sport for the rest of their lives.
-- Rob, Honolulu

• We're suckers for the UFC/tennis compare-and-contrast exercise. Roddick-Griffin isn't bad at all. You make a nice case. I would add that they are fairly close in age, have a certain middle-America appeal and own comparable senses of humor and perspective. Griffin: Silva, Roddick: Federer works. And they even look something alike.

Some differences: Griffin, of course, is best known for winning the greatest knock 'em, sock 'em fight in UFC history, a seminal moment in the sport's rise. I'm not sure Roddick ever had that signature win, though some will point to his five-hour victory (21-19 in the fifth set) over Younes El Aynaoui in the 2003 Australian Open quarterfinals or his comeback from a two-set deficit and match point down in the third to beat David Nalbandian in the semifinals en route to winning the 2003 U.S. Open. Also, Roddick was a junior champion whose arrival was heralded. Griffin was working as a Georgia police officer when he burst on the scene.

Aw, come on, Jon, no love for the Italians? They win yet another Fed Cup and don't warrant a mention? For shame!
-- Jackson, Seattle

• Fed Cup? Rings a bell. Can you be more specific? All credit to the Italians. But, really, this event is in dire need of some Juvederm. Over to you, Chris Clarey.

Just wondering: When did Fernando Verdasco become a doubles specialist?
-- Todd, London

• Right. For those who missed it, Verdasco and David Marrero upset Bob and Mike Bryan in the doubles final at the Tour Finals. Verdasco may have slipped to No. 30 in the singles rankings, but what a sensational result in London. Before this year, the guy had won only 100 doubles matches (versus 350 singles matches) in his decade-plus career. In 2013, he won 39 doubles matches and is up to No. 8 in the rankings. It's funny, a few years ago, if you'd have asked, "Which top 20 player will become a doubles star?" I'm not sure Verdasco would have been your top answer. But here he is. And good for him.

Shots, miscellany

• The tour announced a prize money increase for ATP 500 tournaments.

• Maria Sharapova will join NBC's coverage of the 2014 Winter Olympics in her native Russia.

• A modest (and reasonable) proposal to change the challenge system.

An Andre Agassi update. Love that he still wears the "Daddy Rocks" necklace.

Hang Up and Listen confirms that Aaron Krickstein might be the nicest man in the world.

• Cleveland will play host to the U.S.' first-round match against reigning champion Italy in the 2014 Fed Cup on Feb. 8-9. The Italians defeated the Americans in the first round this year.

• The Bryan brothers worry about the future of doubles.

• Spanish doubles player Nuria Llagostera Vives was suspended two years after testing positive for methamphetamine.

• Andy Murray is training in Miami.

• Quinn Sutherland of New York has look-alikes: Tomas Berdych and actor Christopher Walken.

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