Fierce rivals

Roger Federer versus Rafael Nadal is a marquee rivalry that should, as things stand, suffer nothing in comparison with Borg-McEnroe, Navratilova-Evert and Sampras-Agassi from the Open Era, writes S. Ram Mahesh.

There he was, minding his business. Going quietly about it, with the petulant tucking of a wisp of hair into his headband, or the sharp bark after shanking a forehand his only concessions to emotion. Maybe, he pumped his fist on the odd occasion. But most of his demeanour on court — index finger raised to the sky, head down or gentle racket wave not unlike a composer twiddling his baton to applause — was of a man supremely at peace with himself.

Roger Federer was in the business of destroying opponents; his love for beauty in stroke creation, and his knowledge of the greats that had gone before him, however, made him something of a benevolent aggressor. Scarcely had Pete Sampras retired his 85-square-inch-head Wilson Pro Staff that there was talk of a greater force gracing tennis: a force that might be the greatest ever.

Amidst all the titles and the streaks and the glory, a statistical oddity raised its head. A statistical oddity that slugged a muscular, left-sided forehand, and got to everything. A statistical oddity in capris or clamdigger pants — a distinction depending on your sartorial preferences — called Rafael Nadal. At first, it seemed a glitch. But, it grew and grew, till Federer could no longer say, "But I don't know, you guys have to have more to write about than I have to talk about. So this is for me one night, and I'll be on the road and forget it, so... " as he did at Rome after one of many defeats to his nemesis, and sound convincing.

How can you be the greatest of all time if the second-best player of your generation beats you at will? Not the kind of thing that looks pretty on the resume. Going into the Wimbledon final this year, Federer had lost five straight times to Nadal. The right-hander's only four losses in the year till then had been to the Spanish man-child the media had anointed his rival.

Andy Roddick, ever one for self-depreciatory humour, when asked about his `rivalry' with Federer, said he'd have to start "winning a few of them" for it to be called a rivalry. Federer, in audience then, had laughed politely. Stepping onto the lawn at the All England Tennis Centre, the Swiss, could have forgiven for thinking the same with regard to Nadal. In the event, Federer closed out the match for his fourth successive Wimbledon title, joining Sampras and Bjorn Borg as the only men to have done it. The difference was the first set — a bagel — that featured all of the champion's artistry: bow-bent crosscourt backhands, forehand swipes on the run that looked nothing like swipes.

But, Nadal hadn't rolled over on the surface he is most vulnerable. Anything but. There are many technical facets to the 20-year-old's seemingly one-dimensional game; his strength of mind is another thing altogether. He will not go quietly, or as Federer put it, "no matter if he's love-40 down or 40-love, you're always going to get the same guy." Federer, himself a master of mind control, had tightened up, looked anxious, and confessed as much after the match. "It was important to get him back, not to let him beat me on grass, on hard court, on clay, on all surfaces this year," said the 25-year-old. "It was a big, big match. I stepped up to the plate." What about the rivalry? "I like it again now."

The Wimbledon final marked an important phase in the Federer-Nadal dynamic. Yes, it could now be legitimately called a rivalry — despite being 6-2 overall in Nadal's favour, it's 1-1 in Grand Slam finals. But, more importantly, it marked the rise of Nadal as a challenger on all surfaces. With the two separating themselves from the rest of the field, they will meet around the year in finals. Or at least that's what tournament directors will be hoping. For, Federer v Nadal is a marquee rivalry that should, as things stand, suffer nothing in comparison with Borg-McEnroe, McEnroe-Connors, Navratilova-Evert, and Sampras-Agassi from the Open Era.

Tennis needs such rivalries. Two belief systems, two representations, two forces: one-on-one sport thrives on duality, on polarisation. As Richard Zago wrote in the Guardian, a rivalry brings into conflict two emotional chemistries. "It certainly has all the components that can capture the imagination of the sporting public," said Agassi of Federer-Nadal. "It's number one and number two in the world with two entirely different games. Their personalities are entirely different. These are the layers that are needed for a great rivalry. Something tells me they will be deciding Grand Slams for the next few years."

Federer-Nadal has enough for the regular fan: the clean-cut FedEx versus the bicep-popping Rafa, or, perhaps, as the American media will have us believe, Superman and his Kryptonite. But, it's the technical pedantry when the two face off that fascinates most. Why does Federer's serve break down (he has never had a higher first-serve percentage than Nadal in any of their meetings)? Why, oh why, does his space-creator shot, the inside-out forehand implode even when struck from within the baseline? Will Nadal continue to wear him down with those heavy roundhouse forehands that Federer has to pull from above his shoulder on the backhand side?

McEnroe spoke of each forcing the other to improve. The evolution in Nadal's serve is a case in point, as is his desire not to allow Federer "play aggressively with forehand (because) I can do nothing, I playing very short, and it easy for him". So, will Federer continue to stay back, as he did to his advantage on a quicker surface like grass, or will Nadal force him to serve and volley, hence changing modern tennis?

As the two head to the US Open, they throw into relief another thing that makes rivalries great: simplicity. It's a simple theory, one that two-time US Open champion Tracy Austin verbalised: Nadal owns clay (he is Federer's biggest stumbling block on the path to a career Grand Slam); Federer owns grass; hard courts then are the middle ground for battle. It's the kind of simplicity essential for main-eventing an American tournament, whose major stars aren't expected to be American.

THE DUELLISTS

Rod Laver v Ken Rosewall Career titles: Laver 39; Rosewall 25 Prize money: Laver $1,564,213; Rosewall $1,600,300. Head-to-head: Laver ahead 12-5.

Bjorn Borg v John McEnroe Career titles: Borg 62; McEnroe 77. Prize money: Borg $3,655,751; McEnroe $12,547,797. Head-to-head: Equal at 7-7.

Bjorn Borg v Jimmy Connors Career titles: Connors 109 Prize money: Connors $8,641,040. Head-to-head: Borg ahead 13-8.

Ivan Lendl v McEnroe Career titles: Lendl 94. Prize money: Lendl $21,262,417. Head-to-head: Lendl ahead 21-15.

Stefan Edberg v Boris Becker Career titles: Edberg 42; Becker 49 Prize money: Edberg $20,630,941; Becker $25,080,956. Head-to-head: Edberg down 10-25.

Pete Sampras v Andre Agassi Career titles: Sampras 64; Agassi 60. Prize money: Sampras $43,280,489; Agassi $31,110,975. Head-to-head: Sampras ahead 20-14.