The boy who plays like a grown up

Nadal, the BEST CLAY COURT PLAYER in the world, has a second French Open in his sights, but Federer, the best player in the world, wants the title for himself, writes ROHIT BRIJNATH.

There is, when he lets his intensity finally leak away and a crooked smile tilt across his face, the suggestion of a scoundrel to Rafael Nadal. As if instead of bowing before his King (Carlos), or indeed attempting the decapitation of another (Federer), he'd rather be slipping slyly past security guards and hurdling fences to watch Barcelona play football.

It is like when he unties his headband, Nadal is not just releasing his hair but allowing his boyishness to burst forth once again. He will bite trophies, murder English in the press room and sign autographs with a ruffian's grin. Of course, he will keep players idling at the net for the coin toss, but mostly he has kept his manners.

After the five-set Rome final, as he stood bathing in the crowd's appreciation, he turned and sportingly gestured towards a slumped Federer, as if telling the crowd it takes two men to write a tennis epic. At Rome, too, he equalled not just Guillermo Vilas' 53-match clay court streak, but Bjorn Borg's record of most titles won as a teenager (16), yet quickly insisted any comparisons were unseemly.

"I can't compare now with Borg and Vilas," he said. "I just have one Grand Slam (title) and Borg has a lot of Grand Slams (11). So I need to improve. A lot, a lot, a lot, to have a good comparison with Borg."

But this boy Nadal, the crooked smile one, the "Roger is a great player" one, he only exists off court. On court, someone else shows up, a seemingly older practitioner, a man who offers no deference. Nothing about Nadal's demeanour on clay speaks of 19 years. Nothing about his game has teenager stamped on it, maybe only his exuberant leap and uppercut of the air. His tennis is all grown up. It is apparent in his selection of stroke (inevitably the right one), in his managing of pressure (in last year and this year's Rome final, he won five-setters 7-6 in the fifth), in his calm when behind (in Rome, Federer was up one set, then 4-2 in the second set tiebreaker, then 4-1 in the fifth set, then 4-1 in the fifth set tie-breaker), in his handling of line calls, in his repertoire of shots.

Rafael Nadal intimidates, through savage strokes, snarling face and swollen bicep (his unique muscularity perhaps points, like the equally muscled Camilo Villegas in golf, to sports' new breed). He is every bit a clay court player (superb positioning, fine patience, grooved strokes, impregnable mind) and then he is more (no clay court practitioner in memory has hit so hard, nor turned defence into attack so swiftly with a nonchalant flick of the wrist).

When opponents feel his resolve across the net; when they must contend with his buzzing speed (possibly the fastest player in tennis) that ensures he makes them win points not once but twice; when they must absorb forehands of such extraordinary weight they visibly push men backwards; do they even dare think this. That, at 19, he is going to get better.

Last year, Nadal won Monte Carlo, Barcelona, Rome and the French (on his first attempt, at 18, itself an absurd notion). This year, he has won Monte Carlo, Barcelona and Rome. And if he does not rule Paris again, it will merit an official investigation.

Unless Federer can beat him.

We might say at this point that Nadal could turn an ankle in the first round and Federer, temporarily erratic, could fold in the third. Indeed, the French Open seems partial to surprise finalists like Alberto Berasategui (1994), Magnus Norman (2000), Martin Verkerk (2003), even Mariano Puerta last year.

We could say 128 men are in the field and no tournament can be reduced to two men. We should add that there is also a women's tournament to be played and that Nadia Petrova (with three clay court tournament wins) is building her own neat streak. We ought to, this being a preview of sorts, also sift through draws, handicap the field, describe the allure of clay court tennis, take a quick dance through the vibrant history of the toughest of slams.

No point. No one cares. All tennis is hypnotised by is the intoxicating duel between two men, the best player in tennis against the best player on clay. If Nadal's game is elevated on clay because it hides his flaws (adequate serve, reasonable return), then similarly the court's lack of speed reduces Federer's menace.

Still, Federer's dilemma is not so much clay as it is Nadal. This itself is interesting. Of all the accomplished fast court players of recent times (McEnroe, Becker, Edberg, Cash, Rafter, Safin, Hewitt, Sampras), none has shown a scintilla of Federer's facility on terre battue. He has won five tournaments on clay (Becker's total was zero), yet Nadal makes him appear a failure.

The man who sees this absurdity clearest is Nadal himself, aware that while he may own a lopsided 5-1 head-to-head record against Federer, the Swiss is more gifted on Nadal's best surface than the Spaniard would be on Federer's favourite (grass). As Nadal said: "Federer's been the finalist at Monte Carlo, finalist at Rome and three times a Hamburg champion on clay. I think it will be easier for him to win Roland Garros than for me to win Wimbledon."

Going into Paris, Federer is kissed by luck yet embraced by misfortune. If once, Spaniards and Argentines and the odd Brazilian amassed at Roland Garros to administer sweaty punishment on visiting impostors, that brigade has temporarily diminished. The specialists this year are not looking special.

Juan Carlos Ferrero is sketchy, Guillermo Canas and Puerta out on drug suspensions, Guillermo Coria in double fault hell, Gaston Gaudio yet to replicate the form which took him to the French title in 2004, Kuerten damaged by a recurring hip problem. Of course, Federer could find himself enmeshed in a trying draw, and confronting such men, or David Ferrer, or the pummelling Nicolas Almagro (who surely has a French title in him eventually), or Nikolai Davydenko, day after day, saps strength and spirit, yet the field has a certain thinness to it.

That's the good news. The bad news is Nadal is like a maggot in Federer's brain, chomping away at his confidence. Already the Swiss has called the Spanish "one-dimensional", and complained about Nadal being coached by his uncle Toni during matches (a valid point but predictably interpreted as sour grapes). Already he has choked, itself no crime, for every player stutters under pressure, but doing so on two match points in Rome will infuriate the Swiss for it suggests Nadal makes him nervous.

Federer will not like losing, but his champion's brain will find this challenge irresistible. Athletes crave mastery over a game, but more over other players, and he has finally discovered an opponent who demands he extends his skills. He, too, can better. No, wait, he already has.

The Federer playing Nadal in Rome was a superior model to the one left behind in Monte Carlo. The Swiss will look at all the numerous leads he squandered and calculate them not as negatives but as proof that he is creating openings. He knows if he serves strongly, if his stirring forehand operates at maximum efficiency, if his shot selection is true, if he advances behind finely designed approach shots, he has a chance. Except to win, he needs the almost perfect match, Nadal does not.

So vital is the French to him that Federer has enlisted coach Tony Roche's assistance all summer this year. Roche, 61, cannot replicate Nadal's spring-laden forehands, but his lefty-ness allows Federer to understand angles and spins from that foreign side better. In hotel rooms in Paris, conspiracies of stroke-making are being hatched and beware such men on a mission.

Whether this final we crave will come to pass seems almost too much to ask, it presumes perfect draws, no injury, consistent form, uninspired opponents, constant luck. Nadal, so unstoppable he appears, will be there surely on final day, standing at the baseline, at the start of every game giving into his small quirk of bending down and fiddling with his feet, as if to tell himself, boy, pull up your socks. He does not really need to. Federer, to get there and beat him, will have to.