They met for the first time as professionals in the spring of 2006 at the French Open. Rafael Nadal, who had just turned 20, won their quarterfinal match when 19-year-old Novak Djokovic, after losing the first two sets, retired, complaining of a back injury.
Their careers have been inexorably intertwined ever since, and they have created the most artful and heated rivalry in tennis. On Monday evening in London, they met in the final of the Barclays ATP World Tour Finals. The No. 2-seeded Djokovic, who finished the previous two years as the No. 1-ranked player, faced the top-seeded Nadal, who took that ranking from him.
It was the 39th match for Nadal and Djokovic, an Open-era record. And, through it all, they have made each other better and better: to the extent that they are the best in the world at their chosen craft, by a wide margin. They have now played together in 13 tournaments this year and combined to win 12 of them.
Djokovic won this one 6-3, 6-4. He defended his Barclays title and finished his ATP season with 22 consecutive match wins. The last time he lost was in the US Open final -- to Nadal. What happened over the past two months probably wasn't a coincidence.
"We push each other to the limit," Djokovic told reporters afterward. "We make each other work harder on our games, especially when we play against each other. He has improved his game immensely on the hard court this year. He has been positioning himself really well, staying closer to the line and using his forehand around the court really well, as well as serving more efficiently. He made himself even more complete player on the surface that was the least preferred and least successful in his career.
"After the US Open final, of course, I needed to take things slowly and see and analyze what I did wrong, especially in the matches against him, to understand what I need to do in order to win against him: work harder and play better, become an even more skillful player.
"I think the results are showing."
Afterward, Rafa called this one of the best seasons of his career and congratulated Djokovic, saying he played "much better." He also wished him well in the Davis Cup final, which will be contested later this week.
Nadal held a 22-16 head-to-head advantage coming in, but this matchup has been one of streaks as the improving athletes have temporarily pulled ahead in the arms race. In Rafa's big year, 2010, he beat Djokovic the two times they met. In 2011, Djokovic's epic season, the Serb went 6-0 against the Spaniard.
Since then, Nadal, from Mallorca, Spain, had won six of nine matches, but Djokovic, from Belgrade, Serbia, has always been competitive. He has a better return of serve, which helps him in a controlled, indoor environment. He is the only player in tennis who consistently controls Nadal's forehand -- the biggest weapon in tennis and, some would say, its history -- particularly with a crosscourt backhand.
This was another match of subtle strategy that was, as always, compelling theater.
The first set was a series of runs; Djokovic won the first three games, then Nadal took the next three, then Djokovic won the final three.
Djokovic's speed and athleticism force Nadal to be even more aggressive than he's comfortable with. In the pivotal eighth game, Nadal's risk-reward ratio hurt him. Going for too much, he double-faulted, which gave Djokovic another break point. In a terrific rally, Djokovic finally muscled a forehand volley into the open court, and Rafa fell behind 5-3.
There was some stellar work in the last game, too. Nadal hit a gorgeous backhand smash that pushed him ahead 15-30 on Djokovic's serve. The next point might have been the difference in the match. Djokovic's deft backhand half-volley clipped the tape and dropped in. Replays suggested that the tape prevented the ball from sailing wide. Instead of two break points, Djokovic was two points from the set, which he soon collected.
Nadal held off two break points in the third game of the second set, but he couldn't save a third. And that margin held up.
The Spaniard managed to save two match points, the second with a spectacular backhand crosscourt shot, which brought the players to deuce in the final game. Djokovic answered with a 131 mph ace down the middle, his fastest of the match. One last too-strong forehand from Nadal (which went wide) gave the match to Djokovic.
Thus, Nadal's season is over. After a seven-month knee-injury absence, he returned to tennis back in February. Somehow, despite skipping the Australian Open and losing in the first round at Wimbledon, Rafa regained the No. 1 ranking. He still has yet to win this year-end championship.
In four days, Djokovic will be playing for Serbia in that Davis Cup final against the Czech Republic.
"This is definitely the best possible way that I can finish the season," Djokovic said. "This can serve as a great platform for 2014 season. I'm extra motivated and inspired to work and get myself, first of all, rested and recovered in the offseason, and then work on my game and get ready for Australian Open."
This lovely rivalry, provided Nadal stays healthy, seems to have a few more lively years ahead.
To be continued in two months.
Down Under, in Melbourne, Australia.
Bryans' season ends with loss
When Bob Bryan's volley drifted a little long, Fernando Verdasco -- whose rocket from the baseline caused the error -- skipped toward partner David Marrero and smiled. He stopped, leaned in and, ever so slightly, chest-bumped Marrero.
Clearly, it was a shot at the Bryan brothers, who have perfected the airborne chest bump -- and, with the best season of their careers, executed it more than ever before.
And so, Mike Bryan's serve was broken, and the Spaniards held a 6-5 first-set lead, which they consolidated when Marrero converted his first set point. The Bryans will remember four set points that they squandered earlier on Verdasco's serve, but they shouldn't dwell on it for too long.
For this 7-5, 6-7 (3), 10-7 loss to the No. 6 seeds is of little consequence, all things considered. The 35-year-old California twins just finished the best year ever in men's doubles. The Bryans:
• Won three of the four Grand Slam titles and, after taking the Wimbledon crown, held all four major trophies, something that had never happened in the Open era.
• Won 11 tournaments all told.
• Finished with the No. 1 ranking for the ninth time in the past 11 years.
Marrero and Verdasco became the second straight Spanish team to win the year-end doubles championship despite entering the match with a 0-3 head-to-head record against the Bryans, who won this year-end title in 2003, 2004 and 2009.