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Courtly Rivals (cont.)

Posted: Tuesday August 21, 2007 11:20AM; Updated: Tuesday August 21, 2007 11:23AM
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"He puts me under immense pressure whenever and wherever we play," Federer says. "But I do the same for him."
Bob Martin/SI

The contrast in their personalities isn't quite as stark as the fire of McEnroe versus the ice of Borg, but Federer and Nadal do have disparate personas. Federer, 26, is a worldly polyglot who just filmed a segment with the PBS talk-show host Charlie Rose. Nadal, 21, is a quintessential jock whose idea of formality is removing his sweat-saturated bandanna. At the Wimbledon final, after they met at the net for the coin toss, Nadal sprinted to the baseline, recalling Pete Rose dashing to first base after drawing a walk, while Federer went over to his chair and meticulously removed the cream-colored blazer he had worn onto Centre Court.

Further amplifying their rivalry: You can pull up a stool and stay past last call debating their respective merits. The Swiss Mister has won 11 majors to Nadal's three. He's the more complete player. He has held the ATP's No. 1 ranking since early 2004 and next week will eclipse Steffi Graf's record of 186 straight weeks in the rankings penthouse. Yet the Rafaelites will counter that the Spaniard leads Federer in head-to-head meetings 8--5 and has amassed more rankings points than Federer in '07. Nadal's winning percentage in tournament finals, 82.1, is the best in the Open Era, suggesting unparalleled mental toughness. (Federer's is 75.4.) And though Nadal has fewer major titles, he has more than Federer had at age 21.

Don't, however, expect Federer or Nadal to join the discussion. And here's where their rivalry is different from most: There's not a trace of animosity in it. Each man is relentlessly deferential toward the other, dispensing more props than a Broadway stagehand. Says Nadal, "To me he is the best player." Says Federer, "Trust me. I know how good Rafa is."

Hear them gush like this and it becomes apparent that they're not so opposite after all. They were both raised in traditional European families that regard ego as a major character defect. Federer's modesty is as characteristic as his silken backhand. (He spent part of his last Christmas break visiting an orphanage in India.) But Nadal's no prima donna either. At the French Open the two-time defending champ was spotted sweeping the clay courts when he was done practicing. "We're no better than anyone else," says his uncle and coach, Toni Nadal.

Classic rivals Chris Evert and Martina Navratilova became fast friends. Once, before they met in a Grand Slam final, one of them had her period, and together they scoured the locker room for a tampon. While Federer and Nadal aren't quite at that point yet (and not simply because neither menstruates), unmistakable warmth passes between them. When they crossed paths last week in the locker room of the Cincinnati event, they casually slapped five. It might as well have been a secret handshake. They are acutely aware that they're members of an exclusive club, that each benefits from having the other around. "He pushes me to be better," says Nadal. "I think every [athlete] needs that."

In May, Federer ventured to Nadal's home island of Mallorca to play an exhibition on a court that was half grass and half clay. Federer noted that Nadal had played in his hometown, Basel, before. "Now," he said, "I have the opportunity to play at his place." Earlier this month, after the Rogers Cup, Nadal was unable to get a flight out to the next tour stop, in Cincinnati, so Federer invited him to ride in his private plane.

It all makes for strange times for tennis fans. Rivalries tend to cleave public opinion. Who in his right mind roots for North Carolina and Duke, for the Yankees and the Red Sox, for Hillary and Rudy? These deep divisions give the matchups emotional texture. Yet in the case of Federer-Nadal, it seems entirely reasonable to cheer for both. In fact, for most of us, it feels forced to summon dislike for either.

Though recent history suggests that Federer-Nadal XIV will take place at the U.S. Open final on Sept. 9, it's no sure thing. Federer is the three-time defending Open champ, but Nadal has never been beyond the tournament's quarterfinals and is susceptible to being outhit on hard courts -- all the more so given his recent wrist and knee injuries. Their hegemony is also being challenged by the third-ranked Djokovic. In fact, if the 20-year-old Serb keeps improving at his recent pace, we'll have this to ponder: Is there such a thing as a tri-valry?

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