Sunday, November 22. It’s the finale of the men’s tennis season: the ATP World Tour Finals. Novak Djokovic, the world number one, and Roger Federer, the world number three, are battling it out in yet another final. Federer is one set down, each player has won a game in the second set, and Djokovic – seen on the near side of the television screen – is serving at 30-0, from the deuce court (the right half).

Djokovic’s serve falls just inside Federer’s service box down the middle. Federer, seen on the far side of the screen, is standing close to the sideline and returns the serve with a cross-court backhand.

A baseline rally begins.

Shot 1: Djokovic hits a sharp cross-court forehand, with the ball going deep about two feet from the sideline.

Shot 2: Federer goes for a forehand that sends the ball to the middle of Djokovic’s ad court (the left half).

Shot 3: Waiting at the centre line, Djokovic backhands this ball to roughly the same spot as the rally’s first shot.

Shot 4: Federer responds with a forehand down the line that’s short, falling just inside Djokovic’s service line.

Shot 5: Djokovic pounces on it with his powerful double-handed backhand, going cross-court and adding a bit of spin. The ball goes deep and ricochets off the left corner of Federer’s half of the court.

Shot 6: By then, Federer, having danced sideways to his left in the microseconds at his disposal, is in the perfect position to take the ball. With an imperious brushstroke of his single-handed backhand, he sends the ball down the line for a winner.

We have seen this kind of rally thousands of times before, but the thrill never fades. Djokovic applauds with his racket and left hand.

“That’s an oil painting from Federer,” exults the commentator. “How good is that backhand! When that shot is in full flow, it provides us with a lot of eye candy.”

A second commentator chimes in: “So much more difficult to do with a single-handed backhand than [with] a double-hander. That second hand on the racket gives you a little more control.”

Despite Federer’s moment of brilliance, Djokovic goes on to win the second set, the match and the tournament, further widening the already huge gap in points between him and the number two, Andy Murray, and Federer, who is slightly behind the Scotsman.

Djokovic has had one of the most successful years in tennis history. But Federer has done well too, by reinventing himself. This year, Federer won two of the seven finals they contested, but all of those matches were deeply rewarding to watch. For theirs is not just a rivalry between the contemporary game’s best attacker and its greatest defender – it is a contest between art and science. It is as full a study in contrast as one can expect.

Beauty vs ingenuity

Almost all the metaphors we use about Federer’s game come from the arts: maestro, dancing, oil paintings, brushstrokes.

For Djokovic, we look to science and technology: “At his clinical best,” one match report said last week after Djokovic beat world number five Rafael Nadal in the semi-finals of the same ATP season-ending tournament; “the most perfect tennis machine,” noted tennis coach Nick Bollettieri called him this July in this fantastic analysis of the Serb’s game; “Djokovic calculates his angles”, said one caption writer during last year’s French Open; in 2012, an informative article about Djokovic’s training regimen quoted the Serb saying that “every shot has to be a weapon.”

The exquisiteness of an artwork, like Federer’s shots, excites us the minute we encounter it with our eyes or ears; the pleasure is immediate, visceral.

In contrast, the ingenuity of science is often hidden from view and takes longer to appreciate. We may be impressed with the results of science, whether it is a new theorem or a drug. But we don’t usually see the creative leaps during the long process of research preceding a result. Even if we have access to what happened behind the scenes through first-hand accounts or reports, we might not be able to fully comprehend its import.

We might be impressed by the statistics that flash across the television screen about Djokovic’s shots and accuracy in a match. But statistics do not evoke emotional fireworks, and we do not see the process that yielded the statistics.

Here, too, we may have a window into this process, through accounts of Djokovic’s training regimen. Yet specialists are the ones who seem to fully appreciate what is so ingenious about it. Bollettieri, for instance, in the article mentioned above, was in utter awe of Djokovic; tennis legend Martina Navratilova has called the Serb “a pro’s pro”. Federer, in an interview, referred to him as the “great Djokovic.”

The art of Federer and science of Djokovic might be the reason why both may be equally respected, but also why Federer gets way more love. Scientists are admired; artists are adored.

The approaches of the two players are, of course, not so cut and dried. There is a lot of behind-the-scenes science in Federer: just look at how he has methodically, even clinically, reinvented himself with the help of former number one Stefan Edberg following a slump in 2013. It’s not surprising that the person who pin-pointed the precise changes that Federer has made to his technique was a tennis player, Greg Rusedski, in this article.

Conversely, Djokovic is not without on-court artistry: just watch his two wonderful lobs in his semi-final match against Nadal in the ATP Tour Finals. The question, therefore, is more about which of the two, art or science, has the upper hand in each player’s game.

Nadal factor

How do the Djokovic-Nadal and Federer-Nadal rivalries compare with the Djokovic-Federer one? If you are looking for contrast, then the first one does not do as well because both Djokovic and Nadal are defenders.

With respect to the second, no fan of the Spaniard has managed to convince me that the asymmetry of a left-hander playing to a right-hander’s single-handed backhand did not play a part in Nadal’s dominance of Federer. This asymmetry does not take away from Nadal’s achievements. He fully deserves to be in the running for being the greatest of all time along with the other two. But it does skew his match-up with Federer.

The statistics back this up. Nadal dominated Federer (23-11) but is level with Djokovic (23 matches each), who is right-handed but has a two-handed backhand. Federer, too, has a balanced record vis-à-vis the current world number one, who is right-handed: they have 22 victories each. He was, in fact, one match up until the finals of the year-end ATP World Tour Finals tournament in London.

In the age of power tennis, it is true that Federer’s single-handed backhand can be a slight handicap even against a right hander’s double-handed backhand, even after accounting for the fact that the Swiss finally moved to a bigger racket in mid-2013. Also, although Greg Rusedski has said that the 34-year-old is still “moving as well as most of the young guys”, the six-year gap between Federer and Djokovic is non-trivial.

But that’s why we would be wrong to call their rivalry perfect; it is only near-perfect.