Rivalries are like the plots of good mysteries–you get to know the characters and then you find out who done it. With great rivalries, the plot thickens. That’s what’s happening right now in men’s tennis, where Novak Djokovic and Rafa Nadal faced each other yet again for a title at the Sony Open in Key Biscayne last weekend. It was the 40th match between them, and this time Djokovic handled Rafa with uncustomary ease, 6-3, 6-3. Djokovic credits Nadal–and former kingpin Roger Federer–with all his success, saying that without the rigorous competition they’ve provided, he’d never have reached his present level. Nadal, still ranked no. 1, was less sanguine about the the match-up. Wouldn’t it be great to play Djokovic all the time? “I like challenges,” Nadal said, “But I’m not stupid.”
Nadal has won 22 of the 40 matches. And the indefatigable Spaniard is also way out in front in the Grand Slam count. (When you lose so infrequently on clay that people think Roland Garros and Rafa Nadal are the same person, you rack up some Slams.) This year sets up to be the most rivalrous yet. We know these characters deeply. We know what happened at the beginning and in the middle. We know what happened last and it will be pure sports pleasure to see what happens next. Sometimes thrillers are far more exciting when they feature the usual suspects.