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Federer-Nadal rivalry running on its last legs

Photo: Alessandra Tarantino/AP

Rafael Nadal trounced Roger Federer in Rome, but Federer will be seeded higher in Paris.

That lovely portrait is fraying around the edges. So long a centerpiece of the tennis landscape, it's being carted off to the museum, there to stand for a priceless historical era. It shows Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal together at the net, preparing for some monumental, long-ago encounter, the memory now tinged with nostalgia and regret.

There doesn't seem to be much left of this rivalry, not in the wake of Nadal's commanding 6-1, 6-3 victory in Sunday's Italian Open final. One could legitimately question whether "rivalry" even applies. Nadal has a 20-10 lead in career meetings and has won their last five Grand Slam matches. Federer's last sweeping proclamation came at Wimbledon, defeating Nadal in the 2006 and 2007 finals. The mismatch on clay, where Nadal holds a 13-2 edge, has become increasingly difficult to watch.

For those reasons, and the fact that Federer (turning 32 in August) has nearly five years on Nadal, there is little hope for revival. Federer has always held a distinct advantage on indoor hard courts, but there won't be enough of those in the coming years to make a difference -- if they ever did, for those who base their primary judgments on the majors.

I would suggest, however, that "rivalry" is a tricky word in tennis. It doesn't quite connect to Yankees-Red Sox, Harvard-Yale or the kind of individual matchup in another sport that shows up with regularity. Chris Evert and Martina Navratilova set the ultimate standard -- 80 matches over a 17-year period -- but this is a sport regularly associated with "what might have been."

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The pre-Open era separated the pros from the amateurs, denying the public countless great matchups. Pete Sampras-Andre Agassi is considered among the greatest rivalries in sports, yet Sampras had a 6-3 edge in Grand Slam events (20-14 overall) and never lost to Agassi at Wimbledon or the U.S. Open. John McEnroe has always regretted the fact that he played only four Grand Slam matches against Bjorn Borg (7-7 overall) due to Borg's premature retirement. Borg, in fact, beat McEnroe just once at that level -- but it occurred in the unforgettable Wimbledon final of 1980.

It's the spectacle that counts, in tune with the consequence. I remember Sampras-Agassi not for the numbers, but for the privilege of being inside Arthur Ashe Stadium for their 2001 U.S. Open quarterfinal, when, at the onset of the fourth consecutive tiebreaker, the two were greeted by a spontaneous, spine-chilling ovation. For so many seasoned fans, the fourth-set tiebreaker at that 1980 Wimbledon (18-16, McEnroe) remains the most enthralling tennis episode of their lives.

Similarly, few tennis rivalries ever carried the heat and historical significance of Federer-Nadal in the mid-2000s. Here was Federer, widely considered the greatest player of all time, being challenged and occasionally thrashed by Nadal. Federer savored the immense satisfaction gained from those back-to-back Wimbledon victories, and then came a match that surpassed even the Borg-McEnroe epic: Nadal's 2008 Wimbledon victory in the last Centre Court match ever played without a roof. Two or three more points in the growing darkness, and officials would have had to suspend that match. But it had to finish right then, just to properly honor the occasion.

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You know it's a matchup for the ages when specific shots stay in the mind, forever. In the fourth-set tiebreaker that evening at Wimbledon, Nadal was several yards behind the baseline when he uncorked a phenomenal forehand passing shot down the line. Down match point, Federer answered with one of the most clutch shots of his career, an on-the-run pass down the line. A more compelling exchange simply was not imaginable.

It was the contrast, such a vital element in tennis, that made Federer-Nadal so endearing: the cosmopolitan stylist against the sleeveless kid in pirate pants. Right-handed vs. left. Federer's slice-or-topspin backhands, struck so elegantly with one hand, against Nadal's two-handed bullets. Switzerland vs. Spain. And as vastly different as they were, each could be a bit too precious: Federer strolling onto Centre Court with a man purse or some tacky, Nike-inspired jacket, Nadal going through a highly superstitious routine that bordered on the ridiculous.

Too precious, that is, until the match began. Wrote historian Joel Drucker after 2008 Wimbledon: "While Nadal certainly hits his share of amazing shots, his racket work is secondary to the unequivocal will and engagement he brings to competition. The question Federer posed his rivals came from his head: Do you have enough skills to beat me? Nadal's comes from the heart: Do you have enough guts?"

That became an eternally valid question at the French Open, particularly after Nadal's 6-1, 6-3, 6-0 destruction of Federer in the 2008 final. Mats Wilander had been openly questioning Federer's manhood when faced with Nadal's superiority at Roland Garros, saying he "choked" and had "nothing inside his shorts." Now it was clear that Federer's one weakness -- Nadal on clay -- would be a constant. The one time Federer did win the French, in 2009, Nadal had been beaten by Robin Soderling earlier in the tournament.

PHOTOS: Federer-Nadal rivalry over time

It should be noted, as well, that Federer's most memorable Grand Slam finals came largely at the expense of other players: Lleyton Hewitt and Andre Agassi at the U.S. Open finals of 2004 and 2005; Andy Roddick at the 2006 U.S. Open and 2009 Wimbledon; Novak Djokovic and Andy Murray at the 2007 and 2008 U.S. Opens. Nadal has a clear and distinctive edge in the tense, highly contested matches they've played over the years. And while Nadal faced a major roadblock in Djokovic, both physically and spiritually, he never reached that stage against Federer. He won six of their first seven matches and, in essence, never looked back.

What we should remember, most of all, is that we didn't get cheated. When we look back 20-30 years from now, we may well remember Federer-Nadal as the essence of a magnificent era.

"I think we can indeed call Nadal-Federer a rivalry," historian Steve Flink wrote via e-mail, "and a very important one at that. "They made history by playing for three consecutive years in the finals of both Roland Garros and Wimbledon. Nadal won all of those meetings in Paris, of course, but Federer was victorious in two of the three Wimbledons. Moreover, their 2008 Wimbledon final is widely believed to be the greatest tennis match ever played. So those facts alone attest to the fact that it has been an historic and crucial rivalry for many reasons.

"Rivalries can turn around," Flink went on, "but not this late in a player's life. Evert was ahead of Navratilova 20-4 from 1973 into 1978, but later -- from 1982 into 1985 -- Martina won 13 in a row. Evert managed to hold her own for the rest of the rivalry, coming back to beat Navratilova in two French Open finals (1985 and 1986), and an Australian Open semifinal (1988). But Evert was only about two years older than Navratilova and their series went through fascinating ebbs and flows. Jimmy Connors dominated Borg in their early days, but lost the last 10 times they met from 1977 until 1981. Perhaps Connors could have regrouped if the Swede had not left the sport at the age of 25, but we will never know.

"Federer is not a pessimist and he keeps trying to solve Nadal, but it's doubtful he ever will. Nadal's magnificent topspin forehand will always give Federer serious problems off the backhand, and he is generally able to break Roger down from the backcourt, even coaxing Federer into an unusual number of forehand errors as Roger presses during the rallies.

"In the final analysis," Flink wrote, "this rivalry is unique."

Early last year, Nadal conducted a fascinating interview with the French newspaper L'Equipe, covering a wide range of topics. He was seriously questioning his future at that time, due to his wounded knees, and he was asked to address the notion of a "Djokovic-Murray era." We'll have to trust that the translation was accurate, but Nadal said, "It's correct at the moment, isn't it? But perhaps now is not the time to bury me. Let's not forget too quickly. Now I will try to nudge myself into that Djokovic-Murray era [laughter]."

I'm sure Federer was not amused. But consider this: Somehow, over the years, he has never played Nadal at the U.S. Open. Imagine this year's event after a long, hot summer taking a toll on Nadal's knees. He's likely to skip a few events, perhaps losing a bit of rhythm. Now comes Federer, intensely motivated, under the lights at Ashe Stadium. Pronounced dead in spring, the rivalry awakens in autumn.

A flight of fancy, perhaps, but hardly out of the question.

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