As rivalries go,the one between Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal fulfills most of therequirements. Their tennis-playing styles are a study in contrasts: theethereal brilliance of Federer pitted against the unrelenting brutality ofNadal. Federer, a righty from Switzerland, is ranked No. 1; Nadal, a lefty fromSpain, is No. 2. Federer, 24, has a dignified, ambassadorial presence andspeaks four languages. Nadal, who just turned 20, is a citizen of Xbox Nation.There's the requisite mutual respect. There's also a dash of personal animus. ¬∂But a rivalry demands a certain level of parity, an ebb and flow in theresults. There's a reason why Duke's basketball nemesis is North Carolina, notClemson. In tennis Martina Navratilova's record against Chris Evert was 43-37.In the case of Federer-Nadal, there's a problem: The latter has beaten theformer in six of their seven matches, including the last five. ¬∂ Even allowingfor the fact that most of their encounters have come on clay-the choice surfaceof the Spaniard and the least favorite of the Swiss-Federer-Nadal has been,perhaps oxymoronically, a lopsided rivalry. It makes for strange times in men'stennis. With plenty of justification, many observers are ready to anointFederer as the best player of all time. Yet for all his laurels, he can't seemto beat the man ranked directly below him. That prompts a question: How canKing Roger be the best ever when one can now make the case that he might not bethe best of his generation?
The latestinstance of regicide came on Sunday afternoon in the French Open final. In aless-than-classic match Nadal successfully defended his title, recovering froman abysmal first set to win 1-6, 6-1, 6-4, 7-6. He not only denied Federer hisfirst title at Roland Garros but deprived him as well of the "RogerSlam": Had Federer won on Sunday, he would have become the first man in 37years to hold all four Grand Slam singles titles simultaneously. At least for2006, Nadal also thwarted Federer's long-stated quest to become the first mansince Rod Laver in 1969 to win the four majors in the same calendaryear-tennis's ultimate achievement. "I'm disappointed because I reallywanted to conclude the four Grand Slam tournaments with titles," Federersaid after the match. "But he makes it tough, and I guess in the end hedeserves to win."
Nadal has asingular ability to disable the gears of the Federer machine. He hits heavytopspin balls high to Federer's backhand, his decidedly weaker flank. (Midwaythrough the fourth set on Sunday, Federer had committed a galling 30 backhanderrors and had just four backhand winners.) Nadal scrambles from courtsideflower bed to courtside flower bed retrieving shots, prolonging the points andexasperating Federer in the process. He whistles passing shots when Federerattacks the net. And above all, he plays the more poised tennis on the mostmeaningful points. Inasmuch as their back-and-forth rallies are a form ofdebate, Federer may have the wittier quips, but Nadal delivers the moresubstantive blows. "Here's what it is," says Mats Wilander, athree-time French Open champ. "Rafael has the one thing that Roger doesn't:balls. I don't even think Rafael has two; I think he has three."
Nadal's dominanceon Sunday culminated a spring of peerless clay court tennis. He has now won 60straight matches on clay, an ATP record, going back to April 2005. Over thepast two months alone he has won four tournaments and more than $2 million inprize money, a career year for most players. At least on the terre battue,Nadal doesn't merely beat his opponents; he breaks them. As a dispirited KevinKim put it after losing to Nadal in the second round in Paris, "It feltlike you're in the Sahara and you see the hills and there's no ending."
Nadal's tennis isall about violence. He runs so fast and so heavily that he leaves trenches inthe clay after some points. Thanks to his strapping physique and his blindingracket-head acceleration, he delivers zinging shots, particularly on his nastyinside-out forehand. He thwacks the ball as if he'd overheard it talking smackabout his mamà. "It's very physical tennis, and maybe it's not always sobeautiful," he says, "but I play the way I know how to play."
Strange thing is,for all his aggression, once Nadal leaves the court he's averse to conflict.Two hours before the final, he was eating a monstrous portion of pasta and fishin the players' lounge when he was accosted by autograph hounds and tournamentworkers armed with digital cameras. Never ceasing to smile, he accommodatedthem all.
When Nadal heardthat his semifinal victim, Ivan Ljubicic of Croatia, had complained aboutNadal's slow play and expressed a preference for Federer in the final, heshrugged, declining to be drawn into controversy. "You know, everybody isfree to say whatever they want," Nadal said. "I get on well withLjubicic. I don't want to lose that good relationship with him." Askedwhether, given his ritual thumping of Federer, he felt as if he were really theworld's No. 1 player, Nadal responded, "It's a strange question. He'sNumber 1. I'm Number 2. I feel I'm Number 2, which is what I am."
Whatever therankings, together Federer and Nadal have all but hijacked men's tennis, thisat a time when the field allegedly has never been deeper. After Sunday's match,"Federdal" had claimed seven of the last eight major titles. Over thatsame period there have been seven female winners. The most recent is Belgium'sJustine Henin-Hardenne, a Greta Van Susteren look-alike who defended her FrenchOpen dames title on Saturday with a businesslike 6-4, 6-4 dismissal of Russia'sSvetlana Kuznetsova.
For all the talkof the unprecedented power coursing through the women's game, few players haveHenin-Hardenne's ability to supplement percussive ball striking with otherweapons. Her all-court skills, her ability to generate angles and her footworkare unsurpassed. "She just moves so well," said Kim Clijsters afterHenin-Hardenne turned her into roadkill in the semifinals. "You think nowyou have a winner, but against her [the balls] just keep coming back."Henin-Hardenne's unshakable mental toughness-she says one of her great joys inlife is staving off a break point in a tight match-makes her all the moreformidable.
A few games fromdefeat against Amélie Mauresmo in the final of January's Australian Open,Henin-Hardenne abruptly retired, citing a stomachache. Never regarded as themost sporting player, she was roundly criticized in the tennis salon for thatdecision. Her gritty play in Paris went a long way toward restoring herreputation. It's hard to accuse a player of disrespecting her sport when sheextracts so much from her abilities. "I wanted to forget what happened inMelbourne, but it was in my mind a little bit," says Henin-Hardenne, 24,who has won five majors. "But it was more motivation than revenge."
Federer will mostlikely get a measure of both motivation and revenge next month at Wimbledon,the tournament he has won three years running. He will arrive as theoverwhelming favorite, particularly since many of Nadal's strengths get lost inthe translation from clay to grass. All the same, Federer's year will now havea ring of anticlimax. His pursuit of the Grand Slam will have to begin anew in2007.
It was after sixon Sunday when Federer, silhouetted by late afternoon light, sat dejectedly inhis chair awaiting the trophy presentation. He tapped his Nikes with hisracket, whacking the clay out of his shoes-good riddance!-for the last timethis year. Those red granules that fell to the ground might just as well havebeen the sands of time slowly running out on his hopes of winning that elusiveFrench Open, a prospect that looks dim with his hulking, straggly haired"rival" in the draw.
Read Jon Wertheim's Tennis Mailbag every Wednesday atSI.com/tennis.