Embrace tennis's new top rivalry

KEY BISCAYNE, Fla. -- Deny the facts, if you must.

The greatest rivalry in tennis is no longer. The beatdown Rafael Nadal handed Roger Federer at the Sony Ericsson Open semifinals signaled more than a sloppy day at the office for Roger Federer. The 16-time Grand Slam champion was rushed repeatedly by Rafa, almost too easily. So it's time we come to terms with the fact that Novak Djokovic, the evil undefeated interloper, is now the other half of tennis's marquee matchup.

Not ready to eulogize the end of Rafa-Roger? After all, the Federer-Nadal clashes have been the lifeblood of tennis for over a half-decade. They offer the perfect contrast, the appropriate mix of competitive spirit and respect. But ask yourself this: In the past year, have you been angry, perhaps depressed by Federer's inability to consistently measure up to tennis's big boys? Are you yearning for a miraculous turnaround? Yes, you've showed the classic signs of grief. So now, Federer fanatics, you must move toward acceptance.

Accept that the battle for supremacy will be largely decided on the racket of Djokovic. Accept the fact that Federer's waning movement, even if just a half-step, means everything at this level.

Federer's ferocious forehands aren't going anywhere. But the inability to penetrate and hit the ball past the fleet-of-foot players like Rafa was never more discernible than Friday night in Key Biscayne. Although the courts at Crandon Park are remarkably slow, tantamount to clay as some pundits (including Federer himself) suggest, that performance only validated that the change atop men's tennis is more than just a passing phase.

Will Federer win more tournaments? Of course. A Slam? Perhaps. Does he have enough game to beat the members of this new duopoly on any given day? Naturally. But if you're looking for consistent week-in, week-out prodigious performances by this great champion, you're in for a grand disappointment.

We know that despite Federer's inexplicable (inexcusable?) losses from last year and that aching losing streak versus Djokovic, you're hoping that some divine power will rekindle his rivalry with Rafa and grant us more indelible memories. Fair enough. But do yourself a favor: Don't set yourself up for more deception.

Embrace the epic bygone battles from Wimbledon, Rome and Miami. Remember the manner in which the evolution of these two great champions revolutionized the game. It's OK that the best is behind us. Really, it is. Listening to Federer talk after losing Friday night, it's clear that even he is coming around to the concept.

The Federer-Nadal rivalry delivered the tennis junkie a lifetime of unforgettable matches and a greater awareness to the common fan. For that alone, be thankful.

But the rankings do not deceive. Novak Djokovic is the No. 2 player in the world, and we urge you to accept his ascendance and anoint him as Rafa's new nemesis. We're fairly certain you won't be disappointed.