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Nadal-Djokovic: A look at the rivalry

By the time I got back to the press room outside of Rod Laver Arena, the discussion was well underway: "Was this the greatest tennis match of all time?" Reporters from all over the world asked each other that as we stood milling around our desks, waiting for the two men who had just played that match, Novak Djokovic and Rafael Nadal, to come down to the interview room and talk about it. As we waited, tweets with similar responses began to pile up. One journalist who had written an entire book on the last "greatest match of all time," the 2008 Wimbledon final between Nadal and Roger Federer, now wondered on Twitter whether his verdict may have been a bit hasty.

After the initial rush of 2 a.m. excitement, it was finally decided by most that, no, the 2012 Australian Open final, while it was very long, very dramatic and often brilliant, was not the greatest ever. You can't really anoint something the "greatest ever" every three or four years, anyway without losing a little credibility.

What was surprising to me over the next couple of weeks was how far the match fell in estimation, particularly for journalists and serious fans. By the end of the week, two topics dominated: 1) How much time both players took between points; and 2) How "brutal" the tennis was when they did get down to playing it. There was a sense that rather than pushing each other to new heights, Djokovic and Nadal have taken tennis to new lows of grinding, inartistic "physicality."

It's true that both of these guys play a physical brand of tennis. Each specializes in defense, so their rallies are long, and most of their shots are punctuated by grunts. And for all the balls they've hit at each other in their seven finals in the past 11 months, precious few of them have been volleys.

Still, I get the sense that Djokovic and Nadal are being judged not for who they are, but for who they aren't: i.e., Roger Federer. And it's true, neither of the top two players can match his maestro's elegance or variety. Their two-handed backhands are more utilitarian than Federer's sweeping one-hander, and they're much more rooted to the baseline than he is.

Thankfully, beauty remains in the eye of the beholder, and there's no reason to judge these greats by the standards of another great -- no one derided Federer because he didn't own Pete Sampras' running forehand or Andre Agassi's bullet return of serve. If we're going to judge Rafa and Nole by someone they're not, why not choose players like the ultra-practical David Ferrer or Andy Roddick instead? Those comparisons give you a better idea of the subtle all-around skills that make Djokovic and Nadal special, and which have put them in three straight Grand Slam finals.

Such as: Nadal's hands around the net -- he rarely fails up there; Djokovic's ability to get his body out of the way of a serve hit right at him and still nail his return close to the baseline; Nadal's overhead, one of the most authoritative in history; Djokovic's patented curling crosscourt forehand, which he can hit on the run and from outside the doubles alley for winners; Nadal's full-run passing shots; Djokovic's skidding backhand gets.

There's more where that came from, and none of it, in the eyes of this beholder anyway, qualifies as brutal.