Nadal taking edge off rivalry against Federer
The Spaniard is 6-1 overall, but the two have met in only one Grand Slam final.
By HOWARD FENDRICH
PARIS -- Longing for the days of McEnroe vs. Connors? How about McEnroe vs. Borg? Sampras vs. Agassi?
Men's tennis has been lacking a buzz-worthy duel in recent years, and No. 1-ranked Roger Federer vs. No. 2 Rafael Nadal has most of the makings of just such a matchup.
"There's a great rivalry going," said Federer's coach, Tony Roche. "That's great for tennis."
Well, not so fast.
Here's one apparent problem: One guy keeps winning (Nadal holds a 6-1 head-to-head edge after Sunday's French Open final).
Here's the real problem: They've played each other at one Grand Slam tournament so far, the French Open.
That's not to say that, over time, Roger and Rafa can't eventually turn their showdowns into something that matters in the mainstream. They present contrasting personalities and styles of play, and they've separated themselves from the pack.
Wimbledon and U.S. Open
But in the United States, particularly, tennis draws the most attention when it's played on the green lawns of the All England Club or before the celebrity-stocked crowds at Flushing Meadows. Wimbledon and the U.S. Open just mean more to most casual fans, and it's that latter group that needs to become interested for a rivalry to really register.
Those are the stages where it has to happen. And it has to happen in finals, with a major title at stake. That's what gets everyone excited.
No one says, "Hey, remember Andre Agassi's 1992 French Open quarterfinal victory over Pete Sampras?" People do talk about Agassi-Sampras in the 2001 U.S. Open quarterfinals, though, a four-tiebreaker thriller under the lights. And, of course, their meeting in the U.S. Open final the following year, when Sampras won his 14th Grand Slam championship in what turned out to be the last match of his career.
Met 34 times
Those two played 34 times as pros, and the significance of their rivalry isn't diminished by the fact that Sampras held a 20-14 edge, including 4-1 in major finals. What's key is that they played four times for the Wimbledon or U.S. Open title.
Similarly, John McEnroe and Bjorn Borg met four times with one of those trophies on the line. It helps, too, that they produced one of tennis' seminal moments: the 1980 Wimbledon final, with an 18-16 tiebreaker in the fourth set and an 8-6 fifth set.
Few might remember that Jimmy Connors won six of his first seven matches against McEnroe (Roger, take note: McEnroe wound up with a 21-14 advantage). What counts is that they met twice in the Wimbledon final.
Perhaps Nadal knows all of this.
He says he wants to improve on grass and figure out how to translate his game to the slick surface. And while he lost in the second round last year at Wimbledon, it's important to remember that in 2003, at age 17, he became the youngest player to reach the third round there since 16-year-old Boris Becker in 1984.
There's a stronger chance, it seems, that Nadal becomes a factor at the U.S. Open; two of his wins over Federer came on hard courts.
Roddick bows out
Not too long ago, it looked as though Federer and Andy Roddick might develop a rivalry to generate interest and higher TV ratings. They faced each other three straight years at Wimbledon, first in the semifinals, then in consecutive finals.
Federer won all of those contests, and it's instructive to remember what Roddick said after the two finals at the All England Club.
In 2004, after falling to 1-6 against Federer, Roddick said: "I'm going to have to start winning some of them to call it a rivalry."
And in 2005, after his mark against Federer fell to 1-9, Roddick said: "I want another crack at him 'til my record is 1-31."
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