A unique rivalry in more than one way

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FRIENDS AND FOES: Rafael Nadal and Roger Federer are fierce competitors on the court and good pals off it.
FRIENDS AND FOES: Rafael Nadal and Roger Federer are fierce competitors on the court and good pals off it.

The world No.1 is still searching for a way to beat the world No.2 on clay, writes

Rohit Brijnath

Jimmy Connors, the belligerent, finger-pointing, 1970s version, would spit at the Nike feet of Rafa and Roger. You call this a rivalry, he’d snarl. This is more like a romance.

Where’s the animosity, like the professorial Prost explaining: “Metaphorically, Senna wanted to destroy me”? Where’s the intense dislike that led Joe Frazier to say of a bullying Ali, “God might not like me talking like that, but I hated that man”? Where’s the raw bitterness that infects duels between Rangers and Celtic?

Nadal and Federer are giving rivalry an awful name in an “obnoxious weed” universe. Once the Swiss actually accused Nadal’s uncle of on-court coaching, only for him to succumb to his gentlemanly instincts by giving the Spaniard a lift on his jet last autumn. Dear God, the only people who would approve would be those old sissies, Chris and Martina, who first tried to dismember each other and then consoled each other.

Pleasant champions

Maybe because tennis isn’t a full-contact, fibula-denting game like football, that there is more room for cordiality. Nonsense, truth is these are just nice guys, pleasant champions, grown up competitors, scrapping like warriors in Europe’s sandy coliseums, yet still full of aw-shucks smiles and “he’s too good” compliments. It’s a lesson the posturing Harbhajan and Sreesanth will never get.

But despite the charm of their shared respect, this is not what makes Nadal-Federer special. Instead, it’s the continuing insaneness of the numbers that tell us the best player ever-elect still has a losing record (9-6 in total, 7-1 on clay) against the second-best player of his time.

Because he falls so predictably to Nadal on clay, because he lets go even 4-0 leads (second set, Monte Carlo), we forget how capable Federer is on clay, especially for a fast-court practitioner. McEnroe, Becker, Edberg, Sampras won 231 titles on all surfaces between them yet only 10 were on clay. The Swiss already has seven on this shale.

Anyone else since that metronome from Sweden, Federer might have rolled past on clay, might have taken the French Open from. Lendl, Wilander, Muster, Gomez, Costa, Kuerten, Courier, Agassi, Bruguera, anyone. But this is different, this is like being the victim of some cosmic conspiracy, for Nadal is like a machine from Planet Sweat, perfectly designed to beat him on clay. He’s a leftie, a masochistic marathoner, a spin guru, the Great Wall of Spain against whom every shot comes back. As Bob Brett, former Becker coach, says when asked to place the Spaniard in claycourt history: “You’ve got Borg, and then you’ve got Nadal.”

Still, Federer keeps coming at him, looking for encouragement even in defeat, and there is some. In the context of his year, his performance in Monte Carlo was more confident, more pleasing, though his error count (44 to Nadal’s 20) suggests he is not yet in complete control (then again Nadal pushes players to go for too much because what they’re doing is not working.)

Making progress

In the context of Nadal, too, Federer made progress. Four time he broke Nadal in the final, and while he let him back in, it was interesting for even the Spaniard said no one breaks him so often. Says Brett, the Swiss also unveiled a short crosscourt forehand that yanks Nadal out of court, altered his pace, used the drop shot which he rarely does.

But most advice concerns his attacking play, and one howl is constant: go to the net. But Nadal’s geometric precision, his spin which makes the ball kick higher than a cancan dancer, means every attack has to be perfectly planned and executed, and it is a powerful pressure to carry. As Brett says: “It’s about finding the right ball to attack and how to attack.”

Terrific advantage

The Swiss will watch tape, listen to new coach Jose Higeuras, practice. The Spaniard may own him, but Federer has one terrific advantage in this rivalry. He doesn’t really need to make up ground, he doesn’t need to own a winning record on clay against Nadal. All he has to do is beat Nadal just once more on clay to be fulfilled. On June 8, in the French Open final.

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