Federer-Nadal Rivalry Goes Beyond The Surface

By Liz Clarke
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, July 6, 2008

WIMBLEDON, England, July 5 -- The earth's surface, textbooks say, is roughly 70 percent water.

In Roger Federer's worldview, it is composed of three elements -- grass, clay and hard court. And the greatest of these is the Centre Court grass at the All England club, host of Wimbledon, where Federer has won the past five championships.

That feat, combined with Federer's four titles on the hard courts of the U.S. Open, has helped make him the world's No. 1 ranked tennis player for the last 230 weeks.

Like a benevolent ruler, Federer has been willing to concede a small patch of his tennis realm, the clay courts of the French Open, where second-ranked Rafael Nadal has won the last four championships. It has generally been a satisfactory arrangement for Federer, whose efforts to beat Nadal on clay took a major hit with a 6-1, 6-3, 6-0 defeat in last month's French Open final.

But Federer's world order will be restored the moment he reasserts his supremacy in Sunday's Wimbledon championship, where Nadal will once again try to shake the mantle of being the world's best clay-court player and win on Federer's beloved Centre Court grass.

"We want a piece of each world, you know, but the other person hasn't given in yet," Federer said Saturday. "I think it's a great rivalry."

There is a tremendous amount at stake for Federer, 26.

A sixth Wimbledon title would move him within one of Pete Sampras's record 14 Grand Slam event titles. With a victory, he would also become the first in the Open era to win the men's singles title for six consecutive years. (Bjorn Borg won five, from 1976 to '80.)

Nadal is playing for history, too. Only two men in the Open Era have won both the French Open and Wimbledon the same year. Nadal would love to join Rod Laver and Borg, the last to do so.

Sunday's Wimbledon final will mark the sixth time Federer and Nadal have squared off for a major title. Nadal has deprived the Swiss star of the last three French Opens; Federer has beaten Nadal in the last two Wimbledon finals.

But the latest installment should be the most compelling yet.

Nadal forced Federer to five sets in last year's Wimbledon final. And the Spaniard has never looked stronger on grass than he has these last two weeks.

Federer had never looked more ripe for an upset, at least until he arrived for his first-round match on June 24.

He was battling mononucleosis early in the season, which was partly to blame for his losses to Novak Djokovic, Andy Murray and Americans Mardy Fish and Andy Roddick as winter faded to spring.

But Federer's trouncing at the French Open, when he was ostensibly fit and rested, raised new questions about his vulnerability.

Federer has brushed off the skeptics with more than a hint of annoyance.

"I'm on an incredible winning streak on grass," Federer said after reaching Sunday's final. "First, somebody has to be able to break that, you know, before we start talking differently."

Federer's play the last two weeks has been majestic. He has not lost a set in extending his grass-court winning streak to 65 matches. And he has only lost his serve twice in 88 games.

"I cannot do much better than this," he said. Few would argue the point.

Nadal has been nearly as impressive, losing his serve only once since the tournament began.

With last month's lopsided French Open final fresh in everyone's mind, the rivals have taken different tacks in fielding questions about its impact on Sunday's final.

Federer insists that results on clay have no bearing on grass. Moreover, he said he has expunged the drubbing from his mind.

"For me, anyway, that final is out of the picture," he says. "I hardly remember anything of it. It went so quickly."

Nadal is working equally hard to erase any distinction between clay and grass. He has balked each time someone asks how he has improved his performance on grass. Nadal insists he is not a better grass-court player than last year; he is simply a better player. The inference, of course, is that he should be able to replicate his recent clay-court achievements anywhere, including grass.

Enmity adds spice to many of the best rivalries in sports. What would the Redskins-Cowboys games be without mutual dislike? Or the Red Sox and Yankees?

But unlike Joe Namath, the No. 2 player in men's tennis is making no brash predictions on the eve of his third Wimbledon final. Nadal expresses nothing but respect for Federer, hailing him as the best in the world at every opportunity.

Their best rivalry in tennis is oddly refreshing in its mutual admiration. And it has been made more interesting by the players' contrasting styles. Federer is a right-handed hitter whose strokes and movement look effortless. Nadal is a left-handed slugger, who punishes the ball like a heavyweight boxer.

"He's made me improve," Federer said of Nadal. "He's also evolved as a player, started to play better. It's such a different dimension, such a different type of game, it's hard to really judge. But I definitely feel like he's made me more tough."

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