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Clarifying today's defining tennis rivalry

Roger Federer lost to Richard Gasquet at the Rome Masters on Thursday, and it adds a little more impetus to the theory that we've been focusing on the wrong rivalry in ATP tennis these days. Not that Federer-Rafael Nadal hasn't been terrific -- it only produced, among other things, that Wimbledon final of 2008, nominated by many as the greatest tennis match of all time. But the feeling grows that the real, defining rivalry of this generation will be the one between Nadal and Novak Djokovic.

To really appreciate what this might mean in the long term, we have only to roll back the tape a few decades, to the height of the era dominated by Jimmy Connors (in time served, if not tournaments won). When Connors and Borg first squared off, it seemed that theirs would be the defining rivalry of the times.

Then came John McEnroe, to nudge Connors off center stage and make his battles with Borg the gold standard of the time (circa 1979-80). But Borg up and retired, and McEnroe got stuck being rivals with … Ivan Lendl. Not that their competition was a bargain-basement rivalry. In fact, it turned out to be more compelling, in terms of plot twists and turns, than Mac's history with either Connors or Borg, both of whom he mastered in pretty short order.

Mac's career head-to-head with Connors was 20-14; he was just 7-7 with Borg, whom McEnroe figured would be his career rival (McEnroe had a three-match winning streak going when Borg unexpectedly quit). But while McEnroe's rivalry with Lendl never generated the same hype as his battles with Connors or Borg, the combat was equally if not more intense, and the rivalry certainly had stronger legs. Lendl ended up with a career head-to-head advantage of 21-15, which is another reason McEnroe gave the rivalry short shrift.

McEnroe partisans will argue that Lendl padded his record late in their history, winning six straight at a time when Mac was clearly falling off the pace. Fair enough. But those things happen, and you can ask Federer about that. He is 2-8 in his past 10 matches with Nadal, and that winning percentage is bound to decline further as Federer continues to slow down. The least talked-about factor in all this is the difference in age. With nearly five years (or if you prefer, half a tennis career) on Nadal, Federer enjoyed a huge advantage early in the rivalry, but has paid a heavy price at the back end.

As unfortunate as it was that McEnroe faded relatively quickly (he won all of his titles in a five-year span ending in the fall of 1984), he is almost exactly the same age as Lendl. That makes it a lot easier to make definitive statements about their rivalry. And that's going to be true of the Nadal-Djokovic rivalry, as well.

Nadal and Djokovic have already played 26 times (Nadal leads 16-10), even though Nadal is just 24 and Djokovic still 23 (almost a full year younger). When Mac and Ivan were about 25, they were right around 20 matches, evenly split. Nadal and Djokovic are on track to play significantly more matches than McEnroe and Lendl did. We could be looking at a 50-match rivalry here, all other things being equal.

But give Federer credit. He was so good, for so long, that Djokovic was suppressed and consequently is woefully behind both Federer and Nadal in Grand Slam titles. Djokovic has a paltry two, compared to 16 for Federer and nine for Nadal.

In other words, Djokovic has his work cut out. In more ways than one.