Rivalry peaking at perfect time


WIMBLEDON, England – Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal long ago established themselves as the best of the best in men’s tennis, far ahead of anyone else in the game these days.

Then, firmly entrenched at No. 1 and No. 2, they began meeting regularly in tournament finals.

Now they finally have produced the other element any great sports rivalry needs: a scintillating showdown on the biggest of stages. Their five-set “thriller” of a Wimbledon final, as Federer put it Sunday after beating Nadal, left fans wanting more.

Bring on the U.S. Open!

“We sometimes haven’t lived up to the expectations in the past, in our matches in majors, especially,” Federer acknowledged. “That was maybe a bit of a problem.”

Not anymore.

With the most prestigious title in tennis on the line, there were tense tiebreakers, long points, brilliance from both at the baseline. Nadal attacked the way Federer does, even playing serve-and-volley a couple of times. Federer played defense the way Nadal does, winning some points by extending rallies until an error came from the other side.

It was riveting, far more so than their previous Grand Slam encounters, none of which went five sets. It drew TV ratings in the United States that were about 10 percent higher than for last year’s Federer-Nadal final. And it increased the likelihood that Federer vs. Nadal will be looked upon one day in the same class as Sampras vs. Agassi, say, or Borg vs. McEnroe.

At four of the past six majors, Roger and Rafa have been the last men standing, dueling to determine a champion, with Federer 2-0 at the All England Club, Nadal 2-0 at Roland Garros. Only one other pair – Fred Perry and Gottfried Von Cramm in 1935-36 – played each other in the French Open and Wimbledon finals in consecutive years.

Eventually, perhaps, one will triumph on the other’s turf, and while the thinking before Sunday had been that Federer was closer to coming through on clay than Nadal was on grass, this match might have changed that.

When they met at the net, physically and mentally spent, Federer told his nemesis, “I’m the lucky one today” – a fascinating comment from someone with 11 Slam titles.

“He knows just how good Rafa is,” said Federer’s mother, Lynette.

Later, after kissing his fifth Wimbledon trophy, Federer spoke of Nadal in glowing terms.

“He’s playing phenomenal tennis. He’s definitely improved yet again, I think. He had more of a game plan this year than he had last year. Last year, he came out, nothing to lose, kind of hit hard but didn’t know why,” Federer said.

“This year around, he’s changed his game a little bit. Plays maybe a bit more aggressive, knows the game of grass much better. That’s why I think he’s not only just a good clay-courter, he’s a good all-around player.”

Nadal, for his part, always has nice things to say about Federer, and that didn’t change despite the disappointment of falling just short this time.

He called Federer “the best” and his play “unbelievable.”

They have combined to win the last 10 Grand Slam titles, with Nadal collecting three at the French Open and Federer going home with all the others.

“I win my share. He wins his,” Federer said. “We’ve been at the top for over 100 weeks together. It is like building up to one of, maybe, the great rivalries.”

They do make for an intriguing study in contrasting styles, and not merely because of how they play.

Federer strolled onto Centre Court in his all-white, jacket-and-slacks ensemble, seemingly ready to sip a cocktail at a country club; Nadal emerged in his sleeveless muscle shirt, racket in hand, prepared for a workout.

The 21-year-old Nadal is quick with an uppercut and a “Vamos!” when he wins a point; the 25-year-old Federer is more muted during matches, which is why Sunday’s outburst, obscenity included, about the new instant replay system was a bit shocking.

Heck, there’s even this: Nadal is a lefty, Federer a righty.

That last difference is one Federer often notes when trying to fathom why, since the start of 2005, he is 5-7 against Nadal, and 204-7 against everyone else. Before Sunday’s final, Federer practiced with 2001 Wimbledon champion Goran Ivanisevic to get the feel of receiving balls off a left-hander’s racket.

Maybe that helped Federer gain the tiniest of edges in his 7-6 (7), 4-6, 7-6 (3), 2-6, 6-2 victory, enough to join Bjorn Borg as the only men in the past 100 years to win five consecutive Wimbledon titles.

After the clay and the grass, now comes the hard-court circuit, culminating at Flushing Meadows in September. Federer will be bidding for a fourth straight U.S. Open title, while Nadal never has been beyond the quarterfinals there.

“I am playing better than last year,” Nadal said. “I am young. I am improving every season.”

The better he gets, the better his rivalry with Federer becomes. So circle the date: Sept. 9. That’s when Federer and Nadal, No. 1 and No. 2, could meet next to decide a Grand Slam title.