Game On

Sunday, May 16, 2010 /by

98695336

by Pete Bodo

You have to hand it to Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal; they sure know how to work the dramatic moment. They meet today for the first time in about a year, exactly a year, if you're observing the Gregorian calendar (the one named for Greg Rusedski, not the pope). Had you said, almost exactly a year ago, that Federer and Nadal would go 12 months before meeting again, people probably would have suggested you check yourself in for observation.

As Federer said, after surviving David Ferrer to reach the final:“After playing here last year you figured, maybe the French, Wimbledon or down the stretch in America at the latest we’ll face off again, but it just never ended up happening. It shows how incredible our last few years have been and I think it’s exciting for tennis and for us obviously that we can face off again.”

So what's really different, 12 months down the pike from the last meeting of these two gents? Well, both have known adversity, but Federer has also known glory. While Nadal was cooling his jets and icing his knees, Federer completed his career Grand Slam and added Grand Slam titles no. 15 and 16 to his resume. In the process, he also played a Wimbledon final that ranked second only to, well, the final he had played the previous year. Against Rafael Nadal. Which he lost.

Hmmm. . . . Could you concoct a more complex, subtext-laden scenario than the one the two men have written for today?  On balance, it has been a far better 12 months for Federer; a  year ago, he was just some guy with 13 majors to his credit. Nadal  had bagged the title in the first Grand Slam event of the year, beating Federer in Australia; given that Nadal had four straight French Open championships to his name (beating Federer each time, the last three times in the final) he seemed a lock to go 2-0 in majors for 2009. Then his knees gave out and his career, as well as his rivalry with Federer, was put on hold. With Nadal out of the picture until the summer of 2009, Federer feasted.

So where does that leave us for today? Oddly, right where back where we started, with Nadal in pursuit of Federer. But the venue for the renewal of their rivalry is the one where Federer is entitled to feel most comfortable and confident, at least as far as red clay courts go. He put a lot of stock in his win over Nadal in Madrid last year, while Nadal let it be known that he hadn't been all that pumped up about playing Madrid in the first place. The altitude and court speed in the Magic Box created relatively quick conditions: advantage, Federer.

But if Federer is meeting Nadal under the best clay-court conditions he might hope for, he also most be feeling the heat generated by Nadal over the past few weeks. Nadal struggled after returning to the tour last summer, and he's only played with the verve to which we've become accustomed this spring. Federer, by contrast, won the Australian Open this year, but he's had trouble bringing his A-game ever since. Once again, Federer is the hunted, Nadal the hunter. And if those are the terms under which Nadal has played his best, they may also create the circumstance under which Federer is most apt to play his best. Who else can make Federer feel cornered, or preyed upon?  Maybe it's the only circumstance that embodies a sufficiently existential threat to motivate Federer; we already know that he's cool with dropping the occasional match to a Tomas Berdych, Enests Gulbis, or Albert Montanes. 

The big issues, to my mind, will be the match toughness of Federer and the degree of confidence felt by Nadal. Sure, Rafa has played great these past few weeks. But in the back of his mind, consciously or not, he must be asking himself: I've been through lots of changes in the past year, I've learned and grown a lot. I used to be automatic, but am I still the same guy who can go out there and play absolutely fearless tennis against the best player the game has ever produced? For Federer, the question is simpler but no less daunting. Nobody I've ever played hits the ball like this guy; can I still handle his pace and the action he generates when it comes to crunch time?

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