The Nadal juggernaut

AP

The Federer-Nadal race is shaping up for an interesting conclusion, and what promised to stretch expansively into the Federer era might snap a lot earlier than anticipated, writes VIJAY PARTHASARATHY.

AROUND this time last year, self-styled seers were busy forecasting the death of tennis: too much of a good thing, they claimed (and by that, they meant Federer's drearily gorgeous game), would ultimately ruin the sport. The margin of Federer's win against Lleyton Hewitt in the 2004 US Open final — 6-0, 7-6, 6-0 — seemed to lend an oppressive gravity to such predictions. A fickle and, for the most part, undiscerning audience that once gasped in unreserved admiration was beginning to wheeze from boredom. Tennis seemed to be headed Formula One's way — much in the manner that Michael Schumacher throttled his competition, Federer had begun to dominate the circuit — and, one suspects, the season will forever remain embalmed in our minds, draped in a Swiss flag.

Happily, it has since emerged on the strength of new evidence that the calculations and subsequent doomsday predictions were as off-target as a weatherman's report. This year has seen a fierce two-way tussle between him and Rafael Nadal, if not for the top spot — the Swiss is even now too far ahead for that — then at least for current pre-eminence. And, as the year's final Slam approaches, it is evident that these two must begin as automatic favourites, although for sentimental reasons, many will cheer for Andre Agassi (if Sampras could do it, why can't he?).

Nadal and Federer have, over the season, shared equal portions of success: before Cincinatti they had split all six Masters tournaments between themselves. Nadal beat Federer on his way to the French crown, while Federer won his fifth major at the All-England Club. The race is shaping up for an interesting conclusion, and what promised to stretch expansively into the Federer era might snap a lot earlier than anticipated. At the very least, the Mallorcan's run proves that this town, contrary to popular cowboy logic, is big enough for the both of them.

The year began with an upset result for Marat Safin over Federer in Melbourne, but it was one of those brilliant, close matches that finally hinge on one point and Safin proved luckier. It certainly didn't define the shape of things to come, but that observation is obviously made in hindsight; Safin's resurgence was at any rate good news for the sport. Nadal's breathless ascent in the interim between then and now, however, was spectacular not merely because of the swiftness of his climb, but because, like Federer, he was beginning to display remarkable consistency in his results — a fact borne out by his nine titles (and counting) this year.

Nadal, 19, regarded for sometime as one of the most exciting prospects in men's tennis, began the year in the outer precincts of the top 50 — an arm's reach away from the wilds; yet equally within striking distance of greatness. But it was supposed he would take a while to mature mentally and to produce results commensurate with his bludgeoning talent. The left-handed teenager was regarded as the flag-bearer of the next generation, and expected to dominate the next wave of players, a roster that included the likes of Richard Gasquet, Gael Monfils and Robin Soderling.

It appears Nadal caught the earlier boat to stardom. The dazzling Gasquet has shown an early Federer-like capacity for shot-making, but at this stage is understandably inconsistent; while the big-built Monfils, whose serve and forehand are often compared to Andy Roddick's, still struggles to find his balance among the professional crowd. Nadal's serve might pale in comparison; yet his contemporaries to date lack the kind of resilience Nadal already possesses, a quality that allows him to creep back into what many might regard as sealed situations. Nadal clearly thrives on momentum; he seems capable of making the most difficult shot when the adrenalin is surging, and pumps himself further with the fist gesticulation. But more impressively, when things don't seem to be going his way he simply refuses to curl up and die — instead he switches to obdurate defence and makes, especially on the slower clay, some incredible lunging retrieves, thus compelling his opponent to make one more shot and inviting the error.

But it is a concern that he sometimes allows the momentum to swing suddenly in his opponent's favour. Such was the painful case during the Indian Wells hard court final against Federer where initially he stuck by a plan — to hit high balls to the right-hander's backhand, putting the world number one on the defensive — and led by two sets to love; only to watch Federer claw back by taking the ball on the rise on his forehand. Nadal choked horribly on some imaginary fishbone and lost the match in five, but on the positive side learnt several important lessons that he carried into the clay season.

Nadal emulated Mats Wilander by winning on debut at Roland Garros, and his dominance this season on clay, where he remained unconquered, was complete, after he overcame a rusty-looking Federer in a scrappy semifinal. It can be argued that Federer lost this match but that is to deny Nadal credit, for as his much-feared opponent's service and forehand began to disintegrate in unprecedented fashion, Nadal's own shifted gears.

From a broad perspective, Federer, 24, has shown superb results once again: he posted a 74-6 win-loss record in 2004, and had, at the time of writing, lost only three matches in 2005. He has won eight tournaments already, and it is a measure of how much is expected of him, to wrinkle up the nose and say that he has only won Wimbledon.

It is an entirely different matter, though, that some of his performances haven't quite been as convincing — uncharacteristically he has struggled to close out matches against players like Ivan Ljubicic, players with heavy groundstrokes but who are erratic at best; his second serve has dipped significantly, and withered under assault. The rest have clearly improved their standards, even if haven't yet caught up, although the world number one still arguably has the measure of his old rivals. Federer has been stretched several times to tie-breaks in the decider and if he has survived such tests, it is because he focuses on the big points better than most and is able to consistently produce a big first serve at crucial moments.

He was at his best during Wimbledon, where in the final he strangled Andy Roddick's serve, showing in the process how to neutralise one of tennis' most potent weapons, but has looked ever so slightly hesitant on clay, unsure whether to advance or stick behind the baseline. (That's the price to pay, one supposes, for being clever at everything.) Any specialist would fancy his chances.

On hard courts Federer is a step quicker than Nadal, and retrieves will be that much harder to make on the quicker surface. But there is twist in the tale: for a player who has, for the past couple of seasons, won virtually every tournament he entered, it is inevitable that injury must strike despite making careful choices; and while Federer played in the Cincinatti Masters (his only practice tournament in the run-up to the US Open) rumour suggests that the foot injury, which put him out post-Wimbledon, could bear long term consequences.

Going by the look of things, Federer is in for a contest, although his challenger isn't the one most would have considered at the start of the year when names like Marat Safin, Lleyton Hewitt and Andy Roddick were still being bandied around. Federer consequently finds himself in the position of a matador, who, having earned half-a-dozen ears in the course of a busy afternoon, is perplexed to find that an energetic bull-calf has gored him as he was bowing to the applause.

But, as Seneca observed centuries ago, how many ever opponents a monarch eliminates, he will never slay his successor; so perhaps it's best to remain philosophical.