Fed/Rafa Rivalry Watch
Roger Federer, 23
Rank# 1, 71 weeks
2005 Titles: 6
Slams: 4 (2003, 2004 Wimbledon, 2004 Australian, 2004 US Open)
Rafael Nadal, 19
2005 Titles: 6
Slams: 1 (2005 French Open)
H2H, Rafa leads Fed 2-1
2005 Roland Garros SF Nadal 6 3 4 6 6 4 6 3
2005 ATP Masters Series Hard F Federer 6 2 7 6 6 7 3 6 1 6
2004 Miami AMS, Hard R32 Nadal 6 3 6 3
Clay, Rafa leads 1-0
Hard, tied 1-1
Slams: Rafa leads 1-0
June 4, 2005
On Nadal's Birthday, a Rivalry Is Born, Too
By WILLIAM C. RHODEN
ONE hour after he had earned his way into the French Open final, Rafael Nadal was wrapping up a news conference. He had beaten top-seeded Roger Federer with relative ease, 6-3, 4-6, 6-4, 6-3. As the news conference ended, one of the moderators advised the members of the news media to stay put for a surprise celebration. The doors to the interview room flew open and in came Pau Gasol, the 7-foot power forward for the Memphis Grizzlies and a friend of Nadal's, pushing a cart with a cake, orange juice and Champagne. The journalists broke out in an impromptu Spanish rendition of "Happy Birthday."
Rafael Nadal was 19.
The birthday celebration was a fitting metaphor for yesterday and for the entire men's tournament, which has seen the arrival of a rising star - Nadal - and the birth of a rivalry with Federer, widely regarded, at least before yesterday, as the world's best tennis player.
Federer and Nadal played in Miami in April, and Federer came from behind to win. But yesterday's match was the one Federer really wanted, so he could reach the French Open final for the first time.
"It's a pity he beat me here in semis of a Slam," Federer said. "I know I can beat him on any surface, which is good to know, because he's going to be a threat in the future."
This was the blossoming of a rivalry.
Tennis has what it needs: Nadal, a young, energetic star with charisma, and Federer, an established star commonly regarded, at one point, as nearly invincible.
On Thursday, Francesco Ricci Bitti, the president of the International Tennis Federation, called this a potential golden age of tennis. There was certainly a bold contrast between the semifinalists. Nadal is youthful and vibrant, while the 23-year-old Federer, who has won every Grand Slam event except the French, is reserved and low-key.
Federer was asked if the fans at Roland Garros had watched the world's two best players yesterday. He shook his head and spoke about the depth of the field. "Once I play this guy, he's the best with me," Federer said. "The next time I play Andy," he said, referring to the No. 2-ranked Andy Roddick, "and he's the best again."
This is a great time for the sport of tennis. The men's and women's fields are deep, a mix of young players, from 15-year-olds all the way up to thirtysomethings like Mary Pierce and Andre Agassi. Bitti said this was what tennis needed: contrasts.
"Roger Federer is a wonderful person and he's very important for our sport because he is a great person - available, humble, well-educated; in his own way, he's a character," Bitti said. "But I think we also need Nadal, the people coming up. He's a great sports guy, obviously, but he's much more flamboyant, fiery, and the people like this."
Nadal will play Mariano Puerta tomorrow for the championship. This is where the happy story of tennis turns serious. For the second consecutive year, the men's championship features a player who was suspended for a violation of the sport's drug policy.
This is Puerta's first Grand Slam event since being suspended for nine months beginning in October 2003 after testing positive for clenbuterol, a drug whose effects resemble those of anabolic steroids by promoting muscle growth. Under the rules established and adopted by the three leading professional tennis organizations, a first offense carries a two-year ban, but Puerta appealed. A tribunal ruled that a doctor prescribed the drug to Puerta to treat an acute asthma attack.
Puerta had to endure the strain of a layoff and the stigma, fair or not, of being labeled a "drug cheat." After his five-set victory over Nikolay Davydenko yesterday, Puerta was asked if he thought he was still credible.
"Yes, of course," he said. "I have credibility. If there was difficulty, they would not let me play."
But once a sport loses credibility, getting it back is an arduous process. Ask track and field; ask baseball.
"Anyone would be naïve to think any sport is completely clean when so much is at stake, because we test out of competition year-round," said David Higdon, a spokesman for the ATP.
The testing occurs not only at the top levels of the sport, but also at challenger tournaments. "We're catching them," Higdon said in a telephone interview from Florida. "We caught four or five players who never made the news.
Higdon said the ATP made a commitment two years ago to extend its testing. "This is being driven by the players," he said. "They are the ones pushing for a level playing field."
Guillermo Coria, who lost in the final at Roland Garros last year, is suing the maker of the dietary supplement he was taking that resulted in a seven-month suspension in 2002 because it contained the steroid nandrolone.
"Compared to the other sports, where leagues seem to be loosening up," Higdon said, "our players are pushing for stricter guidelines."
Puerta has a story that is in many ways more compelling and sobering than Nadal's. This is also a cautionary story for tennis, a sport whose reach extends worldwide.
This is a great day and a great time for tennis, with a mix of young stars, rising stars and established veterans. There is also a lesson to be learned from other sports: do not be lulled into complacency.
Even in a golden age, the sport is a positive test away from a devastating scandal.