These days, it seems like it's all about Novak Djokovic and Andy Murray. No harm in that, right? Djokovic has not lost a match yet this year (14-0) and he carries and conducts himself with a certain swagger that reminds you, just in case it slipped your mind, that he's very much The Man.
Murray has lost just one match in 2013 (10-1), and that was to The Man in the Australian Open final. The Scot is coming off a breakthrough 2012 in which he bagged the US Open title as well as an Olympic gold medal in singles. Those achievements underscore the feeling that Murray is Djokovic's true rival. It starts with their age; Murray will turn 26 just one week before Djokovic does this May.
Both men are playing at Indian Wells this week. But now one of them is the old guy, and the other is the hurt guy. The rivalry that just two years ago still dominated our imagination has come to a grinding halt. It sounds cruel, but it seems that Federer and Nadal have become the equivalent of last year's model. The evidence suggests that we've moved on. And not just because Murray finally won a major and fans are by nature fickle.
Federer is 31, and he has yet to make a final this year. He's lost to the likes of No. 39 Julien Benneteau (quarter-finals of Rotterdam) and he was out-duelled in a close match by No. 6 Tomas Berdych (semi-finals of Dubai). Federer is the defending champion at Indian Wells, but he's not the favourite in anyone's eyes. Nobody in his right mind is banging on the panic button, but the ticking of the clock seems to be getting louder with each passing month.
Nadal, out for seven months with bad knees, keeps saying how thankful he is to be playing. He's back in the fray now and has a glowing record of 13-1, but he accumulated those two titles (and a final-round appearance) at second- and third-tier clay events.
So far this year, Nadal has played just two guys in the top-20 - both Spanish countrymen with an unhealthy degree of respect for him. Twelfth-ranked Nicolas Almagro and fourth-ranked David Ferrer are a combined 4-26 against Nadal-- all the wins by Ferrer-- but only one has come since Nadal was a mere pup in 2007.
Also, Nadal claims to be unsure of what the future will bring, and he's had an alarming tendency lately to refer to his career in the past tense, as if whatever this "new Rafa" becomes, it won't be the Rafa we once knew. He did it again the other day, defending his criticism of hard courts as too punishing a surface for today's physical game.
"If somebody plays great on this surface, it's difficult to go against this surface, no? So are they not gonna go against the hard court," Nadal said. "That's why I say is not another player's thing, it's a medical thing. Somebody has to think not for today. I repeat: I'm not talking about my career.
"My career is done. We're going to finish my career playing the same or more tournaments on hard, because that's the dynamic. But my opinion is for the next generations that is something has to change."
Look at it this way. The Indian Wells draw has No. 2 seed Federer and No. 5 Nadal projected to meet in the quarter-finals. You know when and where the two last met that early? In 2004, in the fourth round of the Miami Masters (Nadal won). Every single match they've played since then has been a semi or a final.
Sure, this can be put down to the fact that Nadal has been hurt. But we don't know yet if Nadal has recovered his "A" game, and we also don't know if Federer's recent losses are oddities, or part of a larger trend.
What we do know is that only one of these two men has a shot at making the semis. If there's any consolation for either of them, it might be that he could go on to meet Djokovic or Murray in the final - with a chance to strike an unexpected blow on behalf of last year's model.