A rivalry that just won't go away

Tennis' short offseason is underway, and no one may need the break as much as Rafael Nadal and Novak Djokovic.

Nadal has played 82 matches despite making a delayed start to the year, returning from an injury layoff to return to No. 1 with a 75-7 record. But after dominating the clay (as usual) and on hard courts (not usual), the Spaniard lost a little steam during the post-US Open stretch. Some tired-looking performances and two straight losses to Djokovic left him looking ready for some R&R.

Djokovic, meanwhile, played 83 matches and went 74-9 to finish as the second-ranked player. There were some frustrating near-misses -- many at the hands of Nadal -- but also a 17-match winning streak at the start of the season and a 24-match streak to end it. The finish was particularly exhausting. Djokovic won the Paris Indoors and the ATP World Tour Finals by playing 10 matches in two weeks (eight against top-10 players), then won both his Davis Cup singles matches the following week. But the short-handed Serbian team still lost to the Czech Republic in the final of the team competition, leaving Djokovic bitterly disappointed.

All in all, only one player has played more matches this year: No. 3 David Ferrer, with 84 matches, but over the course of many more tournaments.

So how have Nadal and Djokovic decided to spend their well-earned time off? Traveling the world playing tennis, as it turns out.

Huh? What gives? Well, it's not their usual roaring, fist-pumping cannonball brand of tennis. Just the hit-and-make-'em-giggle variety known as exhibition tennis. And 0ven though "exos" don't take nearly the same physical and psychological toll as competitive matches, the travel and publicity demands can be even greater. By those standards, their vacation schedule might be even more daunting than their tournament schedule.

Nadal, in particular, has been going almost nonstop since losing to Djokovic in the Tour Finals in London. Shortly after, he flew to Richard Branson's private island for the Necker Cup, the billionaire's annual tournament/party that draws a number of pros and ex-pros. Top names enjoying the luxurious hospitality this year included Nadal, Boris Becker, Petra Kvitova, Ana Ivanovic, Marion Bartoli, Sorana Cirstea and Daniela Hantuchova, as well as other figures like Britain's Princess Beatrice. Tennis stars sure have it tough sometimes.

From there it was on to Peru for an exhibition match against Ferrer -- someone who could do with some rest himself after trying to play seven straight weeks and going 0-3 at the Tour Finals. That kicked off a week of South American appearances, with Djokovic joining in now that the Davis Cup final is over. On Tuesday, the two were in Santiago at a farewell event for Chile's Nicolas Massu. Next came David Nalbandian's farewell, with Nadal playing the Argentine in his hometown of Cordoba on Thursday, then heading to Buenos Aires on Saturday for a second match against Nalbandian and some doubles alongside Djokovic.

It's not all tennis events either. Nadal is scheduled to take part in a poker tournament next month as part of a sponsor commitment. Later, he and Djokovic will reconvene in Abu Dhabi for the exhibition event there starting Dec. 26. All this comes after they have already played each other six times during the regular season, winning three times each. "I see Rafa more often than I see my mom," Djokovic quipped.

Even sightseeing stops have been folded into the tour. Nadal and Djokovic hit a few balls on a makeshift court on a barge last week while visiting the Perito Moreno glacier. But at least Djokovic somehow managed to get away for a vineyard trip, and the two also took in a soccer game at Buenos Aires, putting on team uniforms and taking a kick on the field. Creditably, they have also given children's clinics and met with kids at nearly every location.

Though a good time seems to have been had by all, this working vacation is mostly about numbers -- ones with several zeros after them. Roger Federer's six-match exhibition tour of South America last year reportedly netted him about $2 million per match, and Nadal and Djokovic, now the duo du jour, are probably commanding similar figures. It's taking place in the extra time that was created two years ago when the regular season was shortened by two weeks. Lower-ranked players have grumbled that they are losing out on tournament pay while those at the top line their pockets with these lucrative appearances.

But the exhibition tours have been a boost for a tennis-enthused region that has generally been starved of big events and the big names that play in them. A rare exception was earlier this year when Nadal decided to play three events to ease himself back into competition, and even then it was his first time playing the South American swing since 2005.

Nadal and Djokovic have been greeted by sold-out crowds and plenty of local attention in the past week, with their matches attracting everyone from the Chilean president (though he reportedly watched only the first set after sitting through the entirety of Massu's match) to Will Smith (in Argentina for his latest film).

It has also provided a few YouTube moments to entertain tennis followers at a time when tournament results are in short supply. In addition to the imitations and on-court jesting that are Djokovic's specialty, Nadal has given a clinic with clowns and done promotional work, like a 15-minute interview alongside Nalbandian on an Argentine talk show. The Spaniard tried to keep a straight face and hold his famously quizzical eyebrows in check as the over-the-top host threw out questions and remarks like "I didn't realize you were so tall" or "Isn't he lovely -- how old are you?" and to top it off, "Have you ever had a serious injury?"

Think Nadal felt he earned his fee after that one?

Hilarity also ensured in Chile, where Nadal absent-mindedly answered a news conference question in English, which he habitually uses most of the year. "Speak in Spanish, idiot," a stern Nalbandian instructed.

More seriously, however, is the question of whether all this activity will affect the Nos. 1 and 2 in their preparations for next year. They insist otherwise, with Nadal even saying he felt the enthusiastic reception would provide "energy to face the coming year."

Djokovic told Argentine newspaper La Nacion that he plans to train hard during the next few weeks and wants to get off to his usual good start. "It's important to organize my calendar for a long year," he said. "The first few months will be essential to my goal of getting back the No. 1 ranking."

The Nadal-Djokovic rivalry has clearly become dominant in men's tennis, and its twists and turns are eagerly anticipated in the year ahead. But for the past week, it has been more about fun (and profit) than games and competition. After a grueling season, maybe that feels like a vacation in itself.