For almost 20 years now, three names dominated the world of male tennis - Roger Federer, Rafael Nadal and Novak Djokovic.
From the time Federer won his first grand slam title in Wimbledon 2003 to French Open 2021, there have been a total of 71 men's singles Grand Slams. And only eight other tennis players were able to win 12 grand slams between them, while these three names fetched 59 titles combined out of the 71.
What's interesting to see is how there's a distinct divide between the two names and Djokovic, represented by a sharp rise in 'Fedal' (Federer and Nadal) fandom against the no.1 ranked player.
"It is a fact that I play 90 percent of my matches, if not even more than that, against the opponent, but against the stadium as well," Djokovic said to Serbian press on 2 July, reported on Tennis Majors after defeating Denis Kudla in the third round of Wimbledon 2021.
He is not wrong. For instance, during the Wimbledon 2021 semi-final against Denis Victorovich Shapovalov on 9 July, Djokovic had to see a placard held up by a woman in the stadium audience who said "my husband is here for Novak, but I am here for Federer." Federer exited the tournament after losing to Hubert Hurkacz in the quarterfinals two days earlier.
Tonight I will be rooting for the 25-year-old Matteo Berrettini in the Wimbledon final. If Djokovic wins tonight, and in all likelihood, he will, he will level with Nadal and Federer in the number of grand slam titles won by each (which is set at 20 so far). And he will remain on the run for the "Golden Slam" - winning all four major titles and the Olympic medal in the same calendar year.
If he loses, not to despair, I believe Djokovic will break all sorts of records in the history of men's tennis in the near future. He might even break women's tennis records in grand slam singles titles, which is currently held by Margaret Smith Court at 24 titles.
Djokovic, statistically, is a resounding champion of tennis. In 2007, he changed his game style to fierce, tactical, defensive and versatile; his racket and more importantly made a revolutionary change in his diet to gluten-free. He thrived and won his first grand slam title in 2008, and the rest is history.
While he is the most successful tennis player in the last 10 years and continues to become more ruthless on the tennis court, obliterating his opponent one after the other, one can argue that a spike in Fedal fandom irks this top-ranked player, and perhaps, he is fueled by it.
At the beginning of his career, Djokovic built a self-image as "the joker," someone who takes things lightly and makes people laugh in spite of being a great player at that time too. I would say that's a much finer self-image than Federer's arrogant personality in his early days.
So why is it that Fedal fandom and love for the rival duo seem more powerful than Djokovic's potential to reign supreme in the sport?
The bromance in tennis
Federer and Nadal - popularly known as Fedal - reigned in the 2000s and early 2010s, they were rivals in their prime, unstoppable tennis masters who put on historic performances on clay and grass pitches. But somewhere between the baselines and T of enticing matches and trophies, their rivalry morphed into a friendship.
Federer reeked of arrogance and surged to stardom in the first half of the 2000s. In fact, I was a devout Federer fan, so much so that I once copied his haircut, not a well-thought-out decision after all. I converted and crossed over to Rafael Nadal's side in 2006 when I first started to seriously watch tennis. Nadal was humble on-court (and off-court) and he was the only player who could impede Federer's absolute domination in the sport in the 2000s.
Nadal, four years younger than Federer, always maintained how much he respected Federer. "If someone says I am better than Roger then this person knows nothing about tennis," said Nadal in the French Open 2010 reported in The New York Times. This was before Federer lost the tournament in the quarterfinals and Nadal, ultimately, bagged the grand slam title.
In fact, in Australian Open 2009, when Federer started crying after losing the final match to Nadal, he consoled Federer saying "sorry for the win." When Federer won the Australian Open 2017 against Nadal, he said "I wish the trophy could be shared."
Off the court, they support each other's foundations and are known to host each other in their respective countries. It is not news that Federer and Nadal share the friendliest rivalry in the world of tennis, but I will go further and say that it's not just tennis, but all sports.
There is no sport where rivals, belonging to the same generation, show respect for each other through a mutual friendship as much as Fedal. We see a vague resemblance in cricket between AB de Villiers and Virat Kohli, but that's a result of them playing in the same team in the Indian Premier League for 9 years now.
Then there is Lionel Messi and Neymar in football. I only mention them because of their show of mutual respect and friendship just a few hours ago after a major tournament in football.
Argentina won their 15th Copa title after a 28-year hiatus beating Brazil 1-0 in the final, and Messi won his first major trophy for his national team. Both footballers were in tears, for different reasons and then they were seen hugging, smiling and sitting together. We have to note that while this is a show of commendable friendship in sports rivalry, Messi and Neymar both played in the same club, Barcelona, for many years until 2017.
Besides, we all know rivalry in football is chalked in as Christiano Ronaldo vs. Lionel Messi, and they are far from … friendship.
And probably there lies the answer, why the tennis world stans Fedal and why it may continue to reign over Djokovic's record-breaking wins and merit. There isn't much like Fedal rivalry in the world of tennis and beyond.