A Battle of Attrition

Rafael Nadal's unexpected rise over the past year-and-a-half has revived men's tennis. The 20-year-old must raise his level on surfaces other than dirt, but already in many circles he is regarded as the man who will eventually overtake Roger Federer as the world's number one tennis player, writes Vijay Parthasarathy.

To all outward appearances, Rafael Nadal is the typical teenager soaking in bravado — shy, yet rebellious and slightly immature — but put him on a tennis court, and the lad will morph into a hyper-energetic superhero with astounding abilities. Put him on a clay court, ladies and gentlemen, and the boy becomes El Defensor, a player who runs down balls faster than anyone in history, a player who can make near-impossible lunging retrieves and blunt any attack with vicious topspin.

Admittedly, as far as elegance is concerned, El Defensor is not a patch on his rapier-wielding compatriot, Zorro. While Nadal's supreme fitness must receive the highest praise, his baseline game can be infuriatingly unappealing. The sartorially-challenged Spaniard — he of the sleeveless fluorescent shirts and pirate pants — can be awkward and clumsy; occasionally, he will even choke on a banana (or at least pretend to). And unlike Zorro, Nadal is not, in everyone's minds, a popular champion. His dodgy time-delaying tactics led the usually unflappable Ivan Ljubicic, Nadal's semifinal opponent at Roland Garros this year, to claim that in the locker room everyone was behind the gentlemanly Roger Federer.

In an ideal world, Federer would have completed his Slam collection; in an ideal world, only a player of comparable skill could have ambushed him. Nadal, however, overcame a weirdly subdued Federer in a four-set final that didn't quite live up to the hype. With that victory, Nadal extended his unbeaten streak on clay to a record 60 matches. He is yet to lose at Roland Garros.

If winning ugly is what it takes to prove that Federer is beatable, then so be it. On the bright side, Nadal's unexpected rise over the past year-and-a-half has revived men's tennis. The 20-year-old must raise his level on surfaces other than dirt, but already in many circles he is regarded as the man who will eventually overtake Federer as the world's number one tennis player.

Indeed, an air of inevitability accompanies that suggestion. Nadal has won 14 successive finals to date; that accomplishment is second only to Federer's record Open era streak of 24. Age is on his side. At 20, Nadal is four years younger than Federer. His best years are very likely ahead of him.

But what about the other contenders, you may ask. Notwithstanding their performances at Queen's last fortnight, Lleyton Hewitt and Roddick have been upstaged. Ljubicic, David Nalbandian and James Blake are doing all they can to capitalise on their late evolution but their efforts might be in vain. Nadal's triumphs have focussed attention on his contemporaries like Gael Monfils, Andy Murray and Novak Djokovic. You get the impression an entire generation has been waylaid.

These are early days still, but at the moment, Nadal owns Federer. He leads the Swiss 6-1 on career head-to-head, and has beaten the Swiss the last five times they met. Four of these wins came on clay, and Nadal even managed to sneak one in, on hardcourts. Rarely has anyone exerted such dominance over a reigning world number one in his prime; certainly this has never happened to Federer.

Just over a year ago, Nadal wasn't much of a threat. The Mallorcan, it was generally believed, had a long way to go. But then he capped a sensational run on clay with a coming-of-age performance at Roland Garros — and, along the way, scalped the top-ranked player.

Federer himself drew comparisons between Nadal and Lleyton Hewitt, after his semifinal loss last year: "They (Nadal and Hewitt) had great results when they were young. Why? Because they're physically and mentally very strong at a young age." Now that might sound like a compliment, but the implicit meaning was that Nadal would slow down as injuries and age took their toll; that Federer would anyway find a way to beat him consistently, and with increasing effortlessness, as he did against Hewitt (and Tim Henman and Nalbandian). It is possible that Federer was consciously trying to undermine Nadal in his own head. Be as it may, Nadal has since emerged as the single biggest threat to Federer's legacy.

Nadal's strategy against Federer is not complex, and in its basic shape it has remained unchanged over their seven encounters. The left-hander employs loopy groundstrokes that pin Federer on his backhand so that the Swiss is forced to slice defensively. Ideally, Federer ought to be attacking Nadal's relatively weaker second serve and double-fisted backhand. Usually, however, Nadal dishes up a kick-serve to Federer's backhand side and from then onward seeks to control the pace of the rally.

The longer the rally the better for Nadal, since he is the best defensive grinder since Lleyton Hewitt and Michael Chang. As it happens, Federer prefers hitting inside-out forehand winners; crucially, that involves battling Nadal's forehand. But Nadal's uncanny ability to retrieve compels Federer to aim closer and closer for the lines, and inevitably draws the error. That's how Nadal creates doubt in Federer's mind: Nadal wears him down through a campaign of attrition.

Lefties enjoy a certain advantage since there are comparitively very few on the Tour, and it takes some time for an opponent (right-handed or otherwise) to get used to the mirror-reversal of angles. Andre Agassi, for one, reckons Federer would have beaten Nadal ten times on ten, were Nadal right-handed. That said, players like Federer are expected to adapt quickly. While Nadal's left-handedness aids his cause, it is hardly the only reason for his prolonged success against Federer.

Leading up to the start of Wimbledon, Federer's four defeats this season have all come against the Spaniard. Losses come so infrequently for Federer these days that each becomes memorable; we have grown so used to his winning that a stray defeat is taken, ridiculously enough, as doomsday evidence of decline.

Clearly, though, Nadal has developed a mental edge over Federer; that much is evident from the latter's body language. In the Rome Masters final, Federer's forehand — his main weapon — let him down on both occasions when he had match-point. After the French Open final loss, the Swiss uncharacteristically betrayed negativity when he suggested at the post-match interview that the match had turned in the second set itself.

Federer, three-time defending champion at Wimbledon, will want to use the grasscourt season to build back his confidence. Nadal has made no secret of his desire to win Wimbledon some day, and will look to carry forth his claycourt form. El Defensor is seeded second in London but unless he improves his net skills and learns to volley better, he is unlikely to progress deep into the second week. A fourth-round appearance on his least favourite surface should be viewed as a bonus.

So, in which direction is men's tennis headed? Clay is pretty much Nadal's exclusive domain, while Federer is easily the most gifted grasscourt exponent since Pete Sampras. A clearer picture should emerge in the approach to the US Open. Nadal and Federer are more-or-less equally matched on hardcourts and it will be fascinating to see if Nadal can exploit his hard-earned advantage.