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Courtly Rivals

Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal are as different as two fierce foes could be, but in one thing they're identical: Neither man will take a verbal shot at the other

Posted: Tuesday August 21, 2007 11:20AM; Updated: Tuesday August 21, 2007 11:23AM
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The last 10 Grand Slam men's singles titles have been won by either the elegant Federer (above) or 
 the bruising Nadal.
The last 10 Grand Slam men's singles titles have been won by either the elegant Federer (above) or the bruising Nadal.
Paul Chiasson/AP

The kid assumed he was being punk'd. After a fine freshman season as Florida's No. 1 singles player, Jesse Levine was luxuriating at home in Boca Ratonlast month when his cellphone chirped. An IMG agent was calling in search of a practice partner for Roger Federer, a few days removed from winning Wimbledon for the fifth straight time. Would Levine meet Federer at his training base in the United Arab Emirates? "When I realized it wasn't a joke," says Levine, "I was like, 'Yup. That works for me.'"

Levine spent 10 days in Dubai hitting tennis balls with the greatest player on Earth and eating lavish meals and relaxing in a swank hotel. "It was pretty sweet," he says.

Why would Federer fly a college kid halfway around the world to train with him? While it was never explicitly stated, Levine knew damn well why. He's a lefthander and thus could simulate the play of No. 2-ranked Rafael Nadal.

So it goes when you're embroiled in a rivalry. At the U.S. Open, which begins in New York City on Monday, Federer and Nadal will be on opposite poles of the draw. Yet if form holds -- as it has at the last two Grand Slam championships -- the two men will be drawn to each other like magnets and will come together on the final Sunday. Serbia's Novak Djokovic has made inroads recently, beating both Nadal and Federer at the Rogers Cup in Montreal, but otherwise the world's top two players have simply hijacked the men's game. One or the other has won the last 10 Grand Slam titles and 21 of the last 28 Masters Series tournaments. In the process they have fashioned what may well be the most gripping rivalry in all of sports.

Federer-Nadal (Roger-Rafa to everyone in the Kingdom of Tennis) meets all the prerequisites we usually set for a rivalry. There are clashing games, divergent personalities, swings in momentum. In tennis as in boxing, styles make fights. Federer, a righty, is an artist, capable of executing any shot in the book -- and many that aren't. He's so smooth that he sometimes seems too proud to use mere power to win a point. Nadal, a lefty, plays violent tennis, pounding the ball and at the same time lacing it with so much spin that his ground strokes tend to bounce like kick serves. Other players uniformly refer to him as "a beast," but they mean it as a compliment.

By virtue of their consistent winning, Federer and Nadal meet often -- another requirement of a thriving rivalry. Since 2004 they've faced off 13 times, only one fewer than Bjorn Borg and John McEnroe, the men's tennis rivals against which all others are measured. What's more, the Roger-Rafa dividing lines have recently blurred. At first the duo seemed to have reached a détente in which Nadal ruled the clay and Federer lorded over every other surface. But in May, Federer snapped Nadal's streak of 81 straight clay-court wins and then made him sweat in the French Open final. Returning the favor, Nadal pushed Federer to a fifth set on the latter's choice surface, grass, in a spellbinding Wimbledon final. "He puts me under immense pressure whenever and wherever we play," says Federer. "But I do the same for him."

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