So it seems that ATP politics have done what five-set finals, a five-year battle for No. 1 and a textured rivalry could not do: create a rift between Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal.
The Australian Open kicked off Monday in Melbourne. But the most discussed clash was between Federer and Nadal. The subject was the state of the ATP. Though one senses there are broader critiques contained in their jousting.
Asked about Federer's remarks that players should be more temperate in their complaining about the Tour, Nadal shot back: "It's very easy for him. 'I say nothing, everything's positive, I stay a gentleman and the others can burn themselves.' " By Nadal's standards, them's fightin' words.
First, a little context: This has been brewing for months. Nadal has been lobbying for a ranking system based on two years of results. Federer publicly opposed this. Nadal was adamant that the next ATP CEO have a playing background and was firm in his backing of Richard Krajieck. Federer opposed this, acknowledging Krajicek's beautiful service motion but expressing concern about his lack of business experience. More generally, some in Nadal's camp believe Federer has been too cautious and conservative with his approach to the ATP, leaving it to others -- specifically Nadal and Andy Murray -- to make the statements and deal with the political fallout.
By Monday, Nadal had struck a more conciliatory tone. "Probably I am wrong telling that to [the media], especially because these things can stay, must stay in the locker room,'' Nadal said. "I always had fantastic relationship with Roger. I still have fantastic relationship with Roger. Just I said we can have different views about how the Tour needs to work. That's all.''
Said Federer: "We can't always agree on everything. So far it's always been no problem really. Back in the day he [Nadal] used to say, 'Whatever Roger decides, I'm fine with.'
"Today he's much more grown up. He has a strong opinion himself, which I think is great.''
One of the endearing dimensions to the "Federal" rivalry is the sense that it feels perfectly normal to root for both of them. No one likes the Red Sox and the Yankees. Real Madrid and Barcelona. Rick Santorum and Dan Savage. Nadal and Federer are both such honorable, fundamentally good guys, who bring so much to bear on the court, it somehow felt OK to support both simultaneously, to enjoy the rivalry without changing sides. And here, too, I don't think it's inconsistent to support both.
Nadal has a fair point that the season is too long; that the tournament representatives on the ATP board are not sufficiently sympathetic to injuries and fatigue; that Federer could stand to be a little less political and circumspect -- and that the solidarity erodes when the players with the most moral authority are reluctant to use it. Federer, on the other hand, is understandably loath to blow up a system that has served him well. He compassionately points out that he represents all the players who are ATP members; that what's good for the members of the top 10 (fewer events, fewer commitment requirements, a shorter season) isn't necessarily good for the Peter Luczaks of the world; that tennis is ill-served when the disputes play out so publicly. In other words, they're both kinda right.
You can bet that the media will continue probing and asking Nadal to respond to Federer's remarks, even if the Spaniard said he wouldn't be talking about it with the media anymore. And vice versa. Corkscrew journalism, the Aussies call it. What's more, players have mentioned a possible strike -- "drastic action" is Nadal's term -- in order to pressure the Grand Slams for a larger slice of the revenue pie. Federer is basically still playing for the sake of winning majors. He has a finite number of opportunities left. Is he really going to sit out Wimbledon over a dispute over money? Stay tuned.
So here we are, Day 1 of the first Grand Slam event of the year and already we have a storyline to follow throughout the season.
I noticed that Jill Craybas failed to qualify for the Australian Open after playing 45 consecutive majors. She thus will end up in eighth place on the Open Era list of most consecutive majors, behind Ai Sugiyama (62), Nathalie Dechy (54), Elena Likhovtseva (54), Patty Schnyder (52), Elena Dementieva (46), Amanda Coetzer and Francesca Schiavone (46). Note that she's the only American on the list. Craybas has never been a contender but this kind of consistency deserves some recognition.-- Wesley Allan, Charleston, Ill.
• Very good. Last week we posed some Twitter trivia: Name the players with the longest active streaks appearing in Grand Slam events. Federer was the winner on the men's side. As Wesley notes, Craybas was tied with Schiavone heading into Australia. But the Rhode Island native failed to qualify, so her run ends at 45.
And, yes, let's take this opportunity to pay tribute to Craybas, who has labored in relative anonymity for most of her career -- a defeat of Serena Williams at Wimbledon notwithstanding -- has avoided controversy, hasn't taken advantage of her platform (see: Mattek-Sands, Bethanie) or done anything more outrageous than act professionally and milk nearly 400 wins (and almost $2.5 million) from a fairly limited game and physique. Tip of the cap and a Buddy Cianci-style handshake.
Your reasons are not enough for Serena Williams to utter those words. We shouldn't be too soft on her.-- Philip Villaseran, Las Pinas, Philippines
• She just lost one of longtime confidants to brain cancer. Her sister is out with an illness. Serena herself is injured -- this after missing most of the last 18 months with various ailments. She is thousands of miles from home. And she's not allowed to express something less than love for tennis at that particularly moment? Really?
Taken from an article from the Andy Roddick-Gael Monfils match: "Monfils caught Roddick by surprise with a between-the-legs forehand to seal the opening tiebreaker after earning four set points with a full-stretch backhand crosscourt winner." Has anyone ever hit a between-the-legs backhand? I tried to visualize by trying a shadow motion with a racket and it seemed physically very challenging to get any kind of force behind the shot.-- Subhadeep, Greenville, S.C.
• That's a proctologist's visit waiting to happen. (On balls to the backhand, you're more likely to attempt that backward slap shot.) And while we're here, Kody Leonard of Dakar, Senegal, reminds us of this Andre Agassi classic.
The total surprise women's semifinalist is going to be Aggie Radwanska. And I think Novak Djokovic is in for a fourth-round shocker versus Raonic. Come on, Jon!! Make some bolder predictions!!-- Paul Stovall, Chicago
• I take Julia Goerges. You take the No. 8 seed who just beat the No. 1 player the previous week. And I need to be bolder?
On your recent mailbag that touches on the countries where players are born versus the countries those players represent: Another example is Mary Pierce, who was born in Montreal yet always played for France. Call me a sensitive Canuck, but after Greg Rusedski and Mary, we deserve a chance to cheer for Milos Raonic or Daniel Nestor as one of our own.-- Debbie, Toronto
• Sensitive Canuck. Seriously, I'd say Canada was indeed owed one after the Pierce-Rusedski "defections," such as they were. You got your karma with Raonic.
Haha, a Petra-fied forest? Oh, dear. Super fail, I'm afraid :-)-- Phillip Eden, Wollongong, Australia
You get my vote for the best coined phrase of the new year: "Time to turn the field into a Petra-fied forest." Terrific. LOL.-- Ash M., Calif.
• I feel better. Thanks.
• Previewing the Australian Open with James Blake in our inaugural Sports Illustrated Tennis podcast. (And he picked the Giants to beat the Packers.) We'll try to do these periodically. If there are other guests you'd like to have on, let me know. Tip of the foreign legion cap to SI.com's Ben Eagle and Chris Sesno for making this happen.
•Today's encounter with a player:
Andrew, Bethesda, Md.: "Several years ago at the Legg Mason Classic in Washington, D.C., I watched James Blake grind out a win in a mid-tournament match. It was not a spectacular match but I remember staying until the end and being impressed by his professionalism and willingness to keep fighting for the win. After most of the crowd headed home for the night, I was still lingering around the grounds, taking in a few last tennis sights for the day, when James (I'm not on a first-name basis but he seems more like a 'James' than a 'Blake') walked right next to me on his way to the players' locker room. He was alone, no entourage. Spontaneously, I called out, 'Nice win.' James stopped, turned around to address me directly and said sincerely, 'Thanks.' Just a single word, but I think it speaks volumes about his decency as a person that rather than just blow by a random fan late at night, he took a moment to show his appreciation."
• Who wants to buy Mats Wilander's home in Sun Valley?
• Another female German player on the horizon.
• Dubai Duty Free has extended its longstanding global sponsorship of the WTA for an additional three years through 2014.
• If you missed it, here's the unsinkable Joel Drucker on Federer.
• And from another continent, here's Kayezad E. Adajania.
• Indiana followers: The Miracle Match Foundation will host "Match for a Cure" on Jan. 29, a tennis event at Bankers Life Fieldhouse in Indianapolis featuring current and former pro tennis players -- including Pete Sampras and Todd Martin, with more top-tier names to be announced soon. The event's goal is to raise awareness and funds for patients with leukemia and other stem cell-related disorders. Bill Przybysz, a former pro tennis player who battled leukemia himself, started the foundation in 1997 with the mission of facilitating miracles for families throughout the world.
• A continent away from the action, Jack Sock wins the Plantation, Fla., Futures event.
• The USTA announced it would award 41 community tennis organizations in the United States more than $400,000 in grants. In 2011, grants and scholarship awards from the USTA totaled more than $1.5 million.