Print and Go Back Tennis [Print without images]

Wednesday, September 19, 2007
Love triangle?

To the sugar at the top of the men's game, we can now add some spice.

So amicable is the relationship between Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal, their grip on the sport for the last three years has been practically a handshake. Nadal rates Federer as the best of all time and shrugs hopelessly when asked about aiming for the No. 1 ranking. Federer says that if he wasn't No. 1, he'd like to see Nadal being the standard bearer.

This summer, Federer gave Nadal a ride in his private jet when the Spaniard was having trouble getting from Montreal to Cincinnati. In the spring, the pair stood side by side when decrying the ATP's planned calendar changes for 2009. They also teamed up to play a quirky half-clay, half-grass exhibition match in Nadal's hometown of Mallorca.

It's a rare and charming sight in the combative arena of professional sport, but it's not to everyone's taste.

If you like a little edge in competitive encounters, the arrival of Novak Djokovic is a welcome one. Not only is there a more prickly atmosphere between Federer and Djokovic, Federer is also doing a bit of the jabbing.

Djokovic became an overnight sensation at the U.S. Open following his post-match impersonations of Nadal and Maria Sharapova. He kept his imitation of Federer behind closed doors, but it was known to players and was even filmed by a player Web site earlier in the tournament.

After defeating Djokovic in the U.S. Open final, Federer seemed none too enthused about his young challenger and implied that he overstepped the mark with his public displays of personality.

"In the locker room he's always very respectful toward me, he's pretty quiet. I only hear stuff," said Federer. "I didn't see what apparently he did in the locker room either.

"I know some guys weren't happy. I know some guys might think it's funny. He's walking a tightrope, for sure."

But Federer had his adolescent period too -- complete with dyed-blonde hair and professional-wrestling watching -- so he's prepared to be a little indulgent. "Just take chances, who cares what the other guys think -- it's the way to go when you're young. I was the same.

"If fans like it, it's good for tennis, to be honest."

So mark down the relationship as semi-frosty. In fact, it's a major step up given the chill that descended a year ago when Federer called out Djokovic for his reputation of taking frequent medical timeouts.

"I don't trust his injuries, you know," said Federer after defeating Djokovic in a Davis Cup match. "I'm serious. I think he's a joke, you know, when it comes down to his injuries. The rules are there to be used, not abused. He's been doing it many times, that's why I wasn't happy to see him doing that and running around like a rabbit again. It was a good handshake. I was happy to beat him."

And while it may have been a lighthearted attempt at humor, Djokovic created a little stir before their fourth-round meeting in Australia when he told TV cameras, "I have only three words for Roger Federer: He is going down."

Bad counting aside, Djokovic has directed few barbs at Federer, only saying that he goes on court believing that he can win their matches and that he wants to be No. 1 one day. But both his parents have taken shots at Federer, and both have said they believe their son is better than the mighty Swiss.

Djokovic and Nadal have had their moments of friction too, with Djokovic retiring down two sets during their French Open quarterfinal match last year and said he felt he had been in control of the match. Nadal's quizzical "Oh yes?" said it all. Things may have warmed up a little since. According to the ATP, Nadal sent a bottle of champagne over to Djokovic's table as the Serb celebrated his tournament victory in Montreal. But being regular PlayStation buddies is a ways off.

The Djoker's fearlessness and sense of fun has won over a lot of fans and fellow players. But acceptance from the two-man club at the summit of the sport, it seems, can only be gained with the racket.

A little less love, a little more triangle -- it all adds up to a lot more intrigue at the top of the rankings.