Posted on Fri, May. 26, 2006
Nadal, Federer getting testy in rivalry
BY CHARLES BRICKER
South Florida Sun-Sentinel
- Two days before the Sunday start of the French Open, the enormously popular defending champion Rafael Nadal seems to be everywhere, including deep within the psyche of World No. 1 Roger Federer, whose throne he rocks as no one else in tennis can.
There are still 15 days and six opponents to conquer before these two young, most luminous stars of the ATP tour could play each other for the seventh time and for the third time this year in a final.
But that's the match almost everyone tracking this Grand Slam wants to see - the man many already have anointed the greatest player in history against the powerful teenager from Mallorca, whose infectious personality and record-tying 53-match clay-court win streak have combined to make him the most commercially desirable player in men's tennis.
If Federer had been able to win more than one of these classic matches, this rivalry might be more amiable.
He hasn't, and a soft but palpable tension is beginning to pervade the two camps, apparently coming entirely from Federer, who has now lost four times in a row to Nadal, and five of their six confrontations overall, including last year's French Open semifinal.
There are two sources of Federer's increasing irritation. First, his inability to find a way to beat this one player, despite having two match points two weeks ago in Rome, and missing both times off his famous forehand side.
Second, his uncharacteristic complaint after the Rome final that Nadal's brother,
Tony, was coaching illegally from the player's box.
"He was coaching a little too much again today. Yeah, I caught him in the act," Federer told reporters, then went on to claim it wasn't the first time he's been annoyed.
"I told him (Tony Nadal) many times already, through the entire match in Monaco. But it seems like they don't keep a close enough eye on him."
Friday, Nadal refused to be drawn into the controversy. "The court is in the court," he begged off. "When anything pass in the court, that finish in the court. I don't have to say nothing about that, no?"
Whether or not Tony Nadal is shouting instructions in violation of the ATP rules in a match between these two goliaths of the game seems less significant than Federer's complaining about it.
It's likely that Federer's irritation is linked to his continuing failures against Nadal and to his uncompromising drive to win the French Open, the lone Grand Slam to escape him.
The two men met with reporters Friday with Federer pleasant, responsive but unsmiling and Nadal, who turns 20 on June 3, joking a bit, flashing his disarming, broad grin and displaying great respect for the man he has tormented.
"The press always say to me Roger is more close to you now. But Roger is the No. 1. I need to stay more closer than him, no?" he said, smiling.
There is no argument that Federer, who once won 24 consecutive finals, is No. 1 in the rankings, and by the prodigious margin of 2,465 points.
But there also is no argument about who is the king of clay. In the course of matching Guillermo Vilas' 53-match clay win streak, Nadal has won the past nine clay court tournaments he entered.
There are two key elements to Nadal's victories over Federer - speed and left-handed ground strokes.
Nadal's heavy forehand crosscourt shots bore in on Federer's backhand side, where he is less comfortable and, because he's such a great defender and retriever, Nadal is able to counter Roger's consistency.
There isn't a weakness in Federer's game, including a very fine serve. But his serve is less effective on clay, where the ball bites into the dirt and stands up more than races through the court.
After losing in four sets in the Monaco final on April 23, Federer decided he would be more aggressive off his backhand side and attack the net more at Rome, May 14.
That match went five hours and five sets and Federer not only had a 5-3 lead in the final-set tiebreak, but two match points. He hit one forehand into the net
and the other long when he had a chance to seize control of those key points.
Was it bad luck or has Nadal gotten deep into Federer's emotional makeup? It's difficult to think of any other moments, against any other players, when Federer doesn't play the trump card when the money is on the table at ultimate moments in a big match.
"He made a mistake with two forehands, one which was quite simple for him," Nadal said.
Federer, of course, will never admit to mental weakness. Number ones don't do that. "I'm on the right track," he says. That means aggressiveness and more aggressiveness.
"For me just to hit it and move backward again, that's not the way I learned the game," he said. "My way of thinking is you come to the net and finish it at the net. That's what I'm doing pretty well at the moment, and that's what makes me win the matches."
It's not so easy to do with Nadal, however. His speed along the baseline means he usually doesn't have to rush his passing shots and, when he gets to his forehand, particularly, he hits with such heavy topspin that the volleys are often difficult to control.
This rivalry began at the Nasdaq-100 Open in 2004 with Nadal winning 6-3, 6-3 in the third round, at a time when Federer had won the 2003 Wimbledon and 2004 Australian Open.
A year later, in the Key Biscayne final, Federer had to rally from two sets down to beat Nadal for the only time. Since then, Nadal has won them all.
And if they meet in the final here and Nadal wins his 60th consecutive clay-court match, it can only add to Federer's frustration.
There will be the obvious comparisons with Pete Sampras, who also never won the French among his 14 major titles.
There also will be the hope of many Spaniards and, indeed, Nadal fans all over the globe that he is ready not only to beat Federer in Paris but at other Grand Slams as well.
It's no longer Federer and the rest of the ATP Tour. It's a two-man race.