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The Tennis world's 'Fe-dal' attraction
Roger Federer was severely short of lines in a script that was seemingly running out on him. After beginning 2010 with a win in Melbourne, the 29-year-old floundered for the most part, making quarterfinal exits at Roland Garros and Wimbledon. On the other hand, Rafael Nadal, having claimed three majors on three different surfaces and in line for a Grand Slam at the Australian Open in January, was hogging the stage. The duet of the last few seasons had faded into a solo. The new No. 1, irreverent and irresistible, was out of company, but he wasn't complaining. Then, like one of those timeless gold-dial creations his country is famous for, the Swiss ace came alive with clockwork precision at London's O2 Arena to halt a rampaging Nadal. In the concluding week of the tennis season, the artist showed he had the artillery.
In the last few seasons, world tennis may have been short of the colour factor of the '80s and '90s - the brash and the bashful, the pouting and the power - but class has been in abundance. Fittingly then, the drama around the Rafa-Roger rivalry has had little to do with excesses of personality and more with what they churn out on the tennis court, the staggering array as also the attitude. They have between them all tennis has to offer: The gentleman champion, genial and genius versus the high-sea raider, the legs of a thoroughbred and the audacity of an upstart. Federer and Nadal compare with the greatest rivalries in sport - Ali-Frazier, Borg-McEnroe, Prost-Senna and Karpov-Kasparov - with the most noticeable difference being they are also friends. While Federer admits to a rivalry, Nadal uses his limited knowledge of the English language as a masking agent, saying, "We never had no problem, no? We always had a good relationship, no?" Federer, whose vocabulary doesn't compare with his precision on the tennis court, picked "intriguing" to describe their rivalry, when he perhaps meant 'classic'.
The world No. 2, who now travels with his 18-month-old twin daughters in tow, said: "We have such different characters and styles, like maybe Borg and McEnroe, but then they only played a handful of times (14). We have played (more than) 20 times and we have the feeling it's going to happen for another 20 times. I have no plans of stopping or quitting or whatever you want to call it. " Despite the year that Nadal has had - a magical summer after which came the conquest of New York - it is the frenzy of the rivalry that precedes all else. Between them Federer and Nadal have accounted for all the Grand Slam titles in the last five years, save two - the 2008 Aus Open and '09 US Open - won by Novak Djokovic and Juan Martin Del Porto. Nadal is 24 with nine Grand Slam titles and Federer has 16 at 29 years of age. The Spaniard leads the head-to-head clashes by a considerable 14-8 margin. What brings the edge to the rivalry is that the duel may well decide the title of the Greatest of all Time (GOAT). There may be an equal number of arguments that favour both men, but while the Swiss superstar has the numbers, the fact that Nadal blossomed at a time when Federer had already wrapped himself in a shroud of invincibility weighs heavily in his favour. Most topflight pros begin to taper around 27 years of age - Bjorg Borg retired at 26, for Sampras the slip slide began at 28 and for Boris Becker again it was the late 20s - which means Nadal at best has another two-three seasons of domination left in him in which time he could win another six or seven Grand Slams if his body holds. However, with Nadal, the question isn't so much about whether he can surpass Federer's haul, but if his body will hold up long enough for him to achieve that feat. Prior to his title win in Monte Carlo in April, Rafa hadn't won a title in 11 months;his knees were troubling him, and his career seemed to be going nowhere. The demands made by his grinding style of play, which turns every match into a marathon, can be brutal. On the other hand, Federer's tennis brings to mind the light, delightful movements of a ballet dancer. He makes a symphony out of every stride and stroke.
Federer wrung in the changes quickly, following a dismal summer. He hired not one but two coaches - Swiss Severin Luethi and Paul Annacone, the American who coached Pete Sampras. The hiring of Annacone, a top-15 player and Wimbledon quarterfinalist in the '80s, a serve and volley man known for his aggressive approach, set the tone. It was a move that reflected in Federer's strategy in the World Tour Finals. "Obviously Paul has had an impact," Federer said, "He simplified a few things, maybe I knew it, but I needed to hear it differently. "The low point of Federer's 2010 season was not so much the 13 losses in the year, but the caving in during the close matches - most notably in the US Open semifinal against Djokovic after holding two match points. The Swiss master, however, seems to have shut the door on his doubts. Federer's game today is more physical than it was two seasons ago and with the former No. 1 leaning as much on the physical as he does on the sheer poetry of his craft, the battles are beginning to be fought on a new, different plane.
For the left-handed Nadal, part maverick, part mean machine, it has been a high-scoring season. Besides completing a career Slam, he is also the first man in 41 years to capture three straight Grand Slam crowns in a calendar year. Aussie legend Rod Laver was the last man to achieve the feat when he swept the Grand Slam stakes in 1969. The Spaniard also racked up a tourleading seven titles from nine finals that gave him $10, 171, 998 in prize money. So, can Nadal get any better? There have been some tweaks and twists to the Mallorcan's play over the years. He uses his sliced backhand more than ever now, when he wants to open up the court or sometimes even to stay in a rally. His serve, the second in particular, though not a weapon, has improved in placement and pace, often throwing opponents on the backfoot. Nadal, however, picks positioning as the area in which he has made the biggest strides. "Standing closer to the baseline, " he said, puts him in a better position against players like Federer, Djokovic and Andy Murray, who are quick with the counter.
Typically, Nadal in his characteristic double-edged manner, said it was possible to have a better season. "You can have a better season, " he said, "For me it is very difficult to imagine to have a better season, but for sure you can have a better season. You can win in every place. It is not in my case, never going to be in my case, but you can have a better season. It is difficult and in my case, almost impossible. " Nadal, the man who has lived the Impossible Means Nothing story, will doubtless attempt to better his 2010 record. Federer, thinking, evolving, emerging all over again, will be looking not so much to halt Nadal, but to make his own music. That's the story of 'Fe-Dal', varied styles and cast-type manner, as different in composition as the sitar and the cymbals, destroying men and walking with the Gods while mortals keep scores.
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