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The greatest of right now

Rafael Nadal celebrates during the men's singles final against top seed Novak Djokovic.
By Neil Schlecht
Monday, September 9, 2013

Another major, another epic battle.

Although many of their matches have been protracted and physically enervating affairs – the Australian Open last year left both men collapsing into chairs, unable to stand for the awards ceremony after nearly six hours on court – the Rafael Nadal-Novak Djokovic rivalry seems to have flowered almost too quickly.

The two men, still just 27 and 26, respectively, have already played 37 times (the most of any men in the Open era), meeting 17 times in finals, including six times in the final of Grand Slams. Nadal and Djokovic first played in 2006, but it’s only in the last three or four years that the rivalry has surged to become the most dominant in tennis.

Rather than space out their matches in dribbles and drabs to heighten expectations, like a prime-career Bruce Springsteen releasing a new record every six or seven years, Nadal and Djokovic have played as though in a hurry to get all their matches in – perhaps before injury, that enemy of an athlete’s shelf life, robbed them of the opportunity.

Nadal’s rivalry with Roger Federer, which many considered the greatest in history, isn’t finished, of course. But it has very quickly been supplanted by the increasingly delicious contests between Nadal and Djokovic.

The Serb and the Spaniard, Nos. 1 and 2, have hurtled toward history with all the rush of Nadal sprinting to net behind an inside-out forehand. Nadal and Djokovic, it seems, aren’t just competing against each other, but competing to outdo their last encounter. Since Djokovic’s meteroric ascendancy in 2011, every outing is must-see drama: feasts of impossible winners and death-defying defense, evidence of two supreme athletes at the height of their powers continually upping the ante.

There was the Australian Open in 2012, 5 hours, 53 minutes of mind-blowing drama. The French Open semifinal this spring, 9-7 in the fifth. Both have entered the pantheon of greatest matches of all time.

Monday night’s US Open final may have only gone four sets, rather than the customary five, but it was no less enthralling.

Two moments stood out, microcosms of this duo’s mesmerizing encounters. First was a second-set 54-shot rally that seesawed back and forth, with increasingly heavy shots leading to sharper angles and even more smothering defense on both sides of the court. When Nadal finally dumped a backhand into the net, Djokovic had snatched the break and seized a dramatic turnaround in momentum.

The duel turned titanic in the third set. As Djokovic blasted away with his forehand, threatening to take control for good, Nadal went down 0-40 on his serve at 4-4. Like a boxed-in escape artist, though, the Spaniard loosened Djokovic’s stranglehold. Nadal crushed his first ace of the match to extinguish Djokovic's third break chance and somehow extricated himself.

It turned the tide. Nadal broke the Serb in the next game and sprinted to victory, his second major of 2013 and 13thGrand Slam title.

“Playing against Novak is always a very special feeling,” said Nadal. “Nobody brings my game to that limit like Novak.”

Djokovic returned the compliment, down to the metaphor. “It's what we do when we play against each other, always pushing each other to the limit,” he said. “That's the beauty of our matches and our rivalry, I guess, in the end.”

For the year, Nadal is now 60-3. Though he missed the year’s first major with a lingering knee injury and shockingly tumbled out of Wimbledon in the first round, Nadal is on his way to compiling the finest season in history, perhaps even bettering Djokovic’s 2011 season, in which he went 70-6.

Nadal, at 13, now trails only Pete Sampras (14) and Roger Federer (17) in Grand Slam titles.

While it’s easy for tennis fans to get drawn into the GOAT (Greatest of All Time) debate, it can be a tiresome exercise in futility. Let's dispense with GOAT discussions and declare a GORN – Greatest of Right Now – instead.

For now, after an impressive 22-0 hard-court season and a second US Open crown, that man is Rafael Nadal.

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