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TENNIS

Aggressive rivalry

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MORE PIECES OF SILVER: Rafael Nadal and Novak Djokovic with their trophies after the Rome Masters early in May

The most physical player in tennis is also its best exponent of the mental game. Former pro Brad Gilbert, one of the shrewdest minds in the game, said of the rabble-rousing cowboy with a racquet - Rafael Nadal, "His opponents are so intimidated by him they are 0-3 down, walking out of the tunnel. Then there is the game itself, he doesn't give you anything. It's a rare combination of unbelievable offence and defence. " Stubborn rearguard action combined with teeth-grinding aggression.

The thing about sport is there's always a weak spot, a puncture waiting to happen. For Rafa, the punctuation came in the form of the wafer-thin world No. 1 Novak Djokovic, who belted the muscled Mallorcan six-successive times last season, sweeping all but the French Open in 2011. Rafa, eyes the colour of melting chocolate, struggled all year, while the stock of tennis' Djoker, mimic parexcellence, soared. The joke was on the Spaniard.

Then came that epic clash, the final of the 2012 Australian Open which Djokovic won after Nadal let him out of jail in the fifth set when the evening had slipped into the night and one day merged with the next. The 25-yearold Serb played a power-charged baseline game for nearly six hours, never letting-up, not even when he collapsed on his back late in the decider, looking like he had played his last point. Djokovic reeled in the unsuspecting world No. 2, forcing him to play a game where he appeared out of depth. Later, during the trophy presentation ceremony, Nadal shook his head times without number, perhaps reliving the folly of the last few games where he gave up his stubborn stance to be sucked in by the Serb's power play. However, it didn't really matter who took home the prize that January night because after Nadal's tame surrenders of last season, the Melbourne mela served-up enough promises to whet the appetites of the connoisseurs. It was the first scent of a new rivalry.

So much so that it's unlikely to add to the tango should Nadal triumph in next weekend's French Open final. "I spend a lot of time here in the city and I feel comfortable here, " Nadal said about Paris, "I've been here with my family on holidays for years, I've always loved this place. " That Roland Garros belongs to the six-time winner Rafa, going for a record seventh title on the red dirt, isn't up for debate and that despite the fact that should Djokovic win in Paris this year he will reach the heights no man has reached since Rod Laver 43 years ago, he will hold all four Major titles simultaneously. But should the Serb win, he'd bite into more than history, he'll gain territory, leaving his rival out in the cold. The third man in this rivetting equation is that ballet-dancer of a tennis player - Roger Federer, going for his 17th Grand Slam title and second French Open crown. But as beautiful a player as the gentle Swiss is, Beethoven in the era of Metallica, few would actually look beyond the top two. The Spaniard may have beaten Djokovic twice this summer, in Monte Carlo and Rome, paying him back for last year's losses on clay, but should the two men make the final on June 10th, it's going to be another humdinger of a clash. If Rafa comes armed with stubborn resolve, Djokojvic will bring the power and punch strung together by a shrewd gameplan for which he won't hesitate to draw upon his considerable acting skills if it comes to it.

American legend Andre Agassi pinned down the rivalry to strategy: "Can Djokovic and Federer beat Nadal at Roland Garros? Of course they can, but they have to be at 100 per cent the whole match and take risks. The way Djokovic has hurt Nadal in the past 18 months is by stepping into the court, taking the ball early. It is a risky strategy and hard to do over a prolonged period in a match. " Djokovic has been unafraid to paint the lines with his vicious groundies. The tighter the situation the more likely that he'll go for the tougher, sharper angle for those are margins the Spaniard pushes his opponents to play by. Nobody beats Rafa Nadal by playing safe. The Serb, who has played him 32 times, winning on 14 occasions, knows that better than anyone else and therein lies the secret to the world No. 1's recent success over Nadal. That's perhaps why fans are already looking beyond the slow, duelling surface of Roland Garros, to greener, faster pastures - of the All England Club, where the Olympic Games will also be held, and then the US Open - for the rivalry to come alive. Last fall, when Djokovic was blitzing all before him and the world watched in awe, the questions, that began with a hush, but grew in decibel level with every loss, revolved around Rafa.

Will the 26-year-old come into his own in 2012? Could he rediscover the fight in him? Tennis' lovable rogue answered those questions at the Australian Open and then again during the clay court season, when he twice beat Djokovic. The super-slick lawns of the All England Club, which will also host the Olympic Games at the end of July, will play host to two major tournaments this season. Djokovic is the defending champion on Church Road. As well as Nadal, the two-time Wimbledon champion, is playing, the Serb with his flat power-packed play is going to be difficult to stop. The Olympics will be followed by the American swing of tournaments that will conclude with the US Open in early September. Like that other claycourt legend Bjorn Borg, Nadal hasn't shown an affinity to a surface considered to be the sport's only level playing field. Rafa has struggled to adapt to the pace of the high-bouncing deco turf surface, on which Djokovic has always done well.

In what is the seasoned Spaniard's second big rivalry of his career - in the first he was pitched against the genius of Federer - Rafa begins as the underdog against Djokovic and that despite what the head-to-head record says. Against Federer, the Spaniard held the mental edge. Rafa played the Swiss superstar 28 times, winning 18 of those encounters. The numbers, however, do not do justice to the rivalry that was all about contrasts: the classic versus the contemporary;the gentleman champion, regal lines and fine bone structure versus the bandana-sporting, fist-pumping reveller, who ends every answer with a question, 'no?'. Federer and Nadal were so apart in temperament and tactics that they seemed to come from different eras or the opposite ends of the earth. As the French would say, vive la difference (long live the difference).

If tennis' last great rivalry (Rafa-Roger ) was a classic black and white frame, the new one (Nadal-Djokovic ) is a gunfight in the countryside, one man's weapons against another's heart. In the Nadal-Djokovic rivalry, the difference lies in the subtle shifts of push and shove rather than poetry and persistence. Djokovic's game revolves around power rather than patience. Armed with a big backcourt game and aided by a whiplash serve, the Serb doesn't bomb through defences quite in the fashion of the young Argentine Juan Martin Del Porto, rather he outpaces his opponents, creates the opening, steps into the court and closes the deal. He's also a great athlete. Djokovic, however, has taken his biggest strides in the mental department. If he was ever-willing to throw in the towel earlier when things were not going his way, citing reasons ranging from exhaustion to allergies, he stands his ground today, refusing to blink. The Australian Open final was proof of that.

"My mindset is positive. I expect a lot from myself, " Djokovic said, following it up with a warning, "I had the best year-and-a-half of my career. I believe I'm at the peak of my game. " No matter what happens in Paris over the next week Djokovic will look at the rest of the season with confidence. If clay is Rafa's play area, then grass and most definitely hard courts is where the genial Serb does best.

Countryman Carlos Moya said of Rafa Nadal: "You see in him something that you don't see in any other player. If I played well against another player, I would have a chance to win, at least make it a close match, but not against him. He forces you to play every point;he doesn't give you any free points, nobody does that like him. " Djokovic would recognise that quality in the Spaniard for he has tamed it not once or twice, but on six successive occasions last season.

The flame of the fight in Nadal flickered to life this season and he's increasingly looking like the battle-scarred warrior he is - shouting, sliding, punching the air. Djokovic on the other hand, is looking more human in the last five months, having already lost five matches this season as against his unbeaten streak this time last year. The world No. 1 has politely deferred the 'favourite' status to Rafa, preferring to take on the role of challenger. Statues count for little though in world sport, where it's all about the knockout punch or the stubborn stance, the aggressor or the man who will not bow.

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