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Head games

Despite history, Federer wants to face Nadal in final

Posted: Wednesday July 5, 2006 8:38PM; Updated: Thursday July 6, 2006 6:49PM
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If he wants to win a fourth Wimbledon, Roger Federer may have to get past Rafael Nadal, who has had Federer's number.
If he wants to win a fourth Wimbledon, Roger Federer may have to get past Rafael Nadal, who has had Federer's number.
Simon Bruty/SI

WIMBLEDON, England -- Maybe it's those dainty country-club roots. Maybe it's that the word "love" is thrown around liberally during a match, or the lack of direct physical contact between opponents, or the fact that the game's first superstar, Bill Tilden, was gay. Whatever the reason, tennis has always been obsessed with proving its manhood. It's boxing from a distance, the aficionados will tell you. It's about blood and guts, Jimmy Connors insists. On Tuesday, some guy stripped down on Centre Court and showed the world his equipment. Streaking has been out of fashion for decades. At Wimbledon, though, it's never a surprise.

So really, now that we are closing in on the showdown everyone wants to see -- No. 1 Roger Federer vs. No. 2 Rafael Nadal -- it's no shock to find some tennis minds simplifying the matter into a variation of the old Saturday Night Live sketch: Quien es más macho? The facts are simple: Federer has lost six of his seven matches with Nadal, including that four-set demolition in last month's French Open final. It's indeed a curious state of things when the player who thoroughly dominates the field is yet dominated by one man, and theories abound. But the most heavily trafficked these days -- because of both source and outrageousness -- is the one voiced by Swedish tennis legend Mats Wilander. "Rafael has the one thing that Roger doesn't: balls," Wilander told Sports Illustrated in Paris. "I don't even think Rafael has two; I think he has three."

Wilander backed off a bit for L'Equipe: "[Federer] might have them, but against Nadal they shrink to a very small size and it's not once. It's every time," he said. Then, to make sure no one missed it, Wilander threw the interview up on his own website.

These are, as everyone in journalism knows, great quotes, and when coming from a seven-time Grand Slam winner, they carry the ring of authority. Who would know better? Yet let's leave aside Wilander's possible fear of being left in the historical dust -- Federer's next Grand Slam title will give him eight -- or the thought that maybe he sees John McEnroe's continuing fame and figures some outrage could boost his visibility. The fact is, Wilander's is an easy theory to absorb, far easier than the wonky notion that Nadal's cross-court forehand exposes Federer's weakest shot, a high backhand, or that his speed and left-handed attack allow little room to establish a rhythm. Federer's game is all about elegance and flow; Nadal disrupts it like a street thug crashing a cotillion. That he does so while oozing testosterone, flexing his biceps in a sleeveless shirt, only seals the image of a man's man, Marlon Brando to Federer's Fred Astaire.