Thirty-nine times Novak Djokovic and Rafael Nadal have played and there is nary a discernible difference between the two. The favorite usually depends on which player lost his last encounter, giving motivational edge to the other.
Djokovic has won 10 of their past 16 meetings. Nadal has won six of their past nine. Djokovic has won two in a row. Djokovic snapped Nadal's eight-year championship hold on the Masters 1000 event at Monte Carlo last year. Nadal beat Djokovic in both Grand Slam confrontations in 2013, first at Roland Garros to deny Djokovic a chance at the career Grand Slam for the second consecutive year, and then in the US Open final. Nadal ripped through the calendar and enters 2014 as the top-ranked player in the world, wresting the title from, naturally, Djokovic.
They orbit one another anxiously and deliciously. The absence of one or another from the tour of a tournament creates opportunity for other players ( David Ferrer rose to third in the world; Andy Murray won the US Open in 2012 without having to deal with Nadal for once), and a void in the anticipation of championship Sunday.
Nadal hasn't played the Australian Open since losing their epic 5-hour, 53-minute final in 2012, and while a rematch in the final would be the ultimate theater to start 2014, a healthy Nadal-Djokovic rivalry for a full calendar year would carry the sport into a place last seen when Roger Federer and Nadal were playing for titles.
Each strives for individual goals while simultaneously keeping an eye on the other. Djokovic, with six Grand Slam titles -- four of them in Australian -- seeks the career Grand Slam. A Nadal win in Melbourne would give him at least two titles in each Slam event, tie him with Pete Sampras with 14 and give him an even better chance to catch Federer's record of 17 major titles.
The wonderful byproduct of their rivalry is how Djokovic and Nadal have affected the mechanics of the other's game. It was the immutable Nadal toughness that both forced Djokovic to fight harder on the tennis court and allowed him to beat Djokovic twice at Grand Slam events last year -- especially down a break in the fifth set in their epic semifinal at Roland Garros. There is Djokovic's court control, which leaves Nadal more vulnerable against him than any other opponent in the game -- forcing Nadal to improve his groundstrokes on hard courts, especially. There is Djokovic's improved serve. According to Greg Sharko at the ATP, Djokovic is now holding 88 percent of his games (tied with Nadal) and winning a staggering 60 percent of his second-serve points. He is already ranked second in return games won.
Nadal is first on the tour in return games won. Djokovic is second.
Djokovic can exploit Nadal's short backhand reply by stepping in, which helps the Serb gain court position. Nadal may beat Djokovic, but at numerous times over the past two years, Djokovic had the game to overpower Nadal in ways that force the Spaniard to start fast, to win the first set or risk perishing quickly, as he did in straight sets in both the Beijing and year-end championship finals.