MIAMI, Fla.—In the beginning, when Roger Federer first began soaring toward the sun, oblivious to the fact that all wings contain some degree of wax, this very idea—"rivalry"—made him uncomfortable. It was, well, irritating. Invasive. Perhaps even improbable.
As he told us in an extraordinarily frank and borderline touching few moments here after he advanced to another potential meeting with Rafael Nadal, this time in the semifinals of the Sony Ericsson Open:
"When I became the world No. 1, I didn't really have that rival, and I was very happy about it. I was just able to win, win, win...and dominate and go on and lose, you know, (just) ten matches in two years, (that) kind of thing. That was quite incredible.
"So in the beginning, I guess, I struggled to embrace the rivalry I had with Rafa. Only later on I was able to say this is actually quite cool. Sleeveless, pirate pants, you name it, long hair, lefty, spins, more with the flat shots and so forth and double?handed against one?handed, lefty against righty. I think it all kind of made sense, and I was able to embrace it then..."
He went on to describe how this rivalry, the best tennis has produced since the salad years of Pete Sampras and Andre Agassi, has matured—become less irritant than inspiration; less a cause for "why me?" bitterness than for celebration. Something to appreciate. Something to cherish and value, a realization that may have been accelerated in Federer's mind by the fact that at the moment, the most accurate descriptive for his—and Nadal's—situation is "trivalry." CBS commentator Mary Carillo used that term today, as Federer contemplated a semifinal with Nadal, followed by a final-round confrontation with black-clad and hungry Novak Djokovic.
"I think we had some good times in the past," Federer went on, talking about Nadal. "And they have changed (the rivalry) into what it is today. Really respectful and helping each other for good causes, foundation matches, you name it, for tsunamis. We've done so many things together. It's been a lot of fun."
The first word that pops into their or our minds tomorrow will not be "fun." It promises to be a protracted and ennervating fight, and to hail with what that means for Sunday, when Djokovic, licking his chops like the patient predator he is, probably will be waiting for either man to venture his way.
It may be hard for U.S. readers to believe, but Rafa and The Mighty Fed have crossed swords only twice on U.S. soil. That was back-to-back, in 2004 and 2005, when Rafa was barely out of his diapiratas. Both meetings took place here in Miami. Nadal shocked TMF, 6-3, 6-3, in that first meeting, setting a pretty good precedent for himself. A rivalry was born that day, although neither man could know it.
Recalling that match, Federer said: "What I remember from seven years ago when I played him the first time (here, the third round), is that I came back from sun stroke in Indian Wells after beating Henman, and kind of dragged my way through the (second-round) match (here) with Davydenko. I don't know how much I had actually heard about Nadal before that match.
"I remember seeing him for a bit over a year, I think, because he had a breakthrough maybe in Monaco the year before or somewhere else. I knew he was good, you know, but he, I guess, surprised me to some degree that he was so consistent, so good on hardcourts already so early.
"That really showed me he was going to become a probably world No. 1, Grand Slam champion, just a really special Spaniard who could not only play on clay but other surfaces as well. He clearly lived up to all the expectations. From then on it went; the rest we know."
Rest assured, the rest we know.
But there was still one stumbling block to the match that everyone other than Lucie Safarova (Tomas Berdych's girlfriend) wanted to see on the schedule, and that was Berdych. Federer got off easy today in what promised to be a tricky but hardly life-threatening quarterfinal when Gilles Simon developed a stiff neck during his warm-up. The tweak ultimately forced him to quit on Federer—and a packed Crandon Park stadium crowd—after just three games.
Nadal had no such luck. In fact, he developed some neck and shoulder problems of his own shortly after he powered through Berdych with a two-break 6-2 first set. The discomfort was nothing compared to what Berdych would make Nadal feel for the rest of the match. Is there a tougher out in men's tennis than Tomas Berdych when he's cast in the role that suits him best—that of the spoiler?
As the air went out of Nadal's game, Berdych grew increasingly confident and those long, sweeping strokes of his put him in charge of most of the rallies. As good a defender as Nadal is, Berdych stretched and bullied him all over the court. It was all Nadal could do to hang in there. Berdych won the second set comfortably, and serving the first game Nadal immediately fell into a love-40 hole. The dream semi-suddenly was looking more like the match everyone might be tempted to boycott.
But that's exactly when the momentum turned. Nadal hit a forehand winner, three consecutive aces, and a volley winner to save the game. The set. The match. The dream semi.
Earlier today, I walked out to our press box halfway up the stadium here, where Sports Illustrated's Jon Wertheim had been watching Federer practice. "Did you see any of this?" he asked.
No, I confessed. Jon went on to describe how Federer can "make the ball talk." How he simply has a degree of feel and facility that nobody, not even Nadal, can match. We all know that to be true, but it's nice to reaffirm it now and then with an experience like that. It's always good to have a refresher course in genius, because we grow too accustomed to watching Federer perform under stress. It's like reading so much Rilke that you forget Wordsworth ever existed.
Under match conditions, practical realities force even the most uninhibited and creative of players to rein it in a bit, to play the percentages and distill talent down to the concentrated essence demanded by what remains the overriding mandate in tennis: to win points, games, sets, matches—as quickly, easily and safely as you can.
Still, you can bet we'll see some of that archingly pretty tennis that TMF conjures up, even when he's impersonating a working stiff just trying to get the job done. The men have no secrets dividing them, no reason to turn away and whisper into the telephone if either of them is within hearing range. If there's such a thing as a comfortable rivalry lacking petty jealousies, resentments, or phony pleasantries delivered through pursed lips and clenched teeth, this is it. If you had told that callow youth whom Federer described earlier, the one who thought he would rule the world and fly circles round the sun, that a rivalry could be so enriching, he probably wouldn't have understood.
Both men have a right to be sick and tired of all the punditry, armchair psychology, and Monday morning quarterbacking that invariably surrounds their meetings, their history. I'm not sure how Nadal feels about that, but this is what Federer said about the process, when he was asked if we make too much of the rivalry, or are too quick to try to create new or different ones.
"Yeah, I think it's understandable you talk about rivalries, and especially you have such a big one going, it's clear that you address the next big player who's playing so well at the moment, which is Novak. What we know is that it moves very quickly, in terms of how the press reacts to results and losses and wins and so forth, ranking swaps. So that's just part of the game. But at the end, I think the players, they look more in the long?term. You can't be too rattled about quick news.
"At the end, I think the press knows that as well. At the same time, we have to come up with a story at the very moment. That's completely understandable. It's fine. I also like good headlines for tennis. I don't want them to be boring and always the same. It's all fine."
It's only natural that Federer would like good headlines. He's made enough of them, and tomorrow night, with a little help from his career rival, he'll surely make one more.