Rafael Nadal, Top Twosomes, and the Future

The only match that either Rafael Nadal or Novak Djokovic lost in London was the final, when Nadal fell to Djokovic.  It was a good summary of the season as a whole.  The top two weren’t undefeated for the entire season, but they might as well have been.

Between them, Rafa and Novak lost only 16 matches this year, six of them to each other.  Fittingly, they split those six matches.  No single player poses a serious threat to their dominance.  Only Juan Martin del Potro defeated both this year, and he lost his five other encounters with the top-ranked duo.  The injured Andy Murray remains only a wildcard, having split Grand Slam finals with Djokovic this year but without having played Nadal since 2011.

Barring a huge upset loss in Davis Cup, Djokovic will end the season with the best-ever winning percentage for a #2-ranked player.  His 88.9% just edges out the 88.7% posted by Nadal in 2005, when he finished second to Roger Federer.  In the last thirty years, only five other #2’s won at least 85% of their matches.

Taking these six prior pairs as the best single-year twosomes the ATP has recently produced, it’s surprising to see what happened to them the following year.  In three of those seasons, neither of the ultra-dominant duos finished the next season at #1.  A third player overcame them both.

Here is the list of the seven most dominant twosomes of the last thirty years, along with their year-end rankings 12 months after the end of their notable seasons (Nx):

Yr  #1              W-L    Nx  #2              W-L    Nx  
83  John McEnroe    62-9    1  Mats Wilander   74-11   4  
85  Ivan Lendl      83-7    1  John McEnroe    72-10  14  
87  Ivan Lendl      70-7    2  Stefan Edberg   76-12   5  
89  Ivan Lendl      80-7    3  Boris Becker    58-8    2  
05  Roger Federer   81-4    1  Rafael Nadal    79-10   2  
12  Novak Djokovic  75-12   2  Roger Federer   74-13   6  
13  Rafael Nadal    76-7    ?  Novak Djokovic  72-9    ?

In 1988, Mats Wilander overcame both Ivan Lendl and Stefan Edberg to claim the #1 position.  In 1990, it was Edberg who leapfrogged Lendl and Boris Becker.  This year, of course, Nadal reclaimed the top spot from last year’s top two of Djokovic and Federer.

Those of us who watched the Tour Finals for the last week might find it hard to imagine that anyone–certainly not any of the other six men in London–would outperform either Rafa or Novak over the course of a season.  But injuries strike, slumps take hold, and–unlikely as it may seem in 2013–young players emerge and dominate. For all of the radical changes in the game since the late 80s, these precedents serve as an important reminder of the unpredictability of tennis.

3 thoughts on “Rafael Nadal, Top Twosomes, and the Future”

  1. Good post – I’ve compared Rafa and Joker’s last 4 years with Rafa and Fed’s 4 years from ’06 to ’09 with the idea of showing how great a rival Rafa is. But I’m and looking for a previous generation’s player to compare him to – someone who had multiple rivals. Any ideas who to look for?

    – McEnroe v Borg (’79-’81) and v Connors (’82-’84)? v Lendl

    – Lendl v McEnroe (’85-’87) and Becker (’86 -’89)

    These rivalries don’t fall into quite such neat 4 year segments as Rafa’s.


    1. Seems like those are as good as anything I could come up with. Having two such notable rivalries for four years each is a tough accomplishment to match.

      (By the way, just came across the fact that Lendl won his last SEVENTEEN matches with Connors. Now that *isn’t* a rivalry!)

    2. The rivalry Nadal has with Djokovic is very different from the one he’s had with Federer.

      Rafael, has the advantage over Federer in just about every aspect. He’s a younger, more physical athlete, and of course his lefty forehand to Fed’s one handed backhand is a huge point in his favor. He can always fall back on that strategy, whenever things aren’t going well for him.

      The Djokovic/Nadal rivalry is nothing like this. In fact Federer, usually has the easier time defeating Novak Djokovic. Mainly because Nole, can hit his backhand up the line on a regular basis.

      Nadal, knows that shot will hurt him, so he has to be careful when going to Novak’s backhand.

      Federer, of course doesn’t have this problem since the down the line backhand goes to his forehand. He also has a much better slice backhand than Rafael Nadal and of course a heavier serve.

      As for a comparable rivalry to compare them with, I can’t really think of one. Maybe the Laver/Rosewall and Rosewall/Connors rivalries from the 1960s through the 70s?

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