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As rivalries go, the one between Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal fulfills most of the requirements. Their tennis-playing styles are a study in contrasts: the ethereal brilliance of Federer pitted against the unrelenting brutality of Nadal. Federer, a righty from Switzerland, is ranked No. 1; Nadal, a lefty from Spain, is No. 2. Federer, 24, has a dignified, ambassadorial presence and speaks four languages. Nadal, who just turned 20, is a citizen of Xbox Nation. There's the requisite mutual respect. There's also a dash of personal animus. � But a rivalry demands a certain level of parity, an ebb and flow in the results. There's a reason why Duke's basketball nemesis is North Carolina, not Clemson. In tennis Martina Navratilova's record against Chris Evert was 43-37. In the case of Federer-Nadal, there's a problem: The latter has beaten the former in six of their seven matches, including the last five. � Even allowing for the fact that most of their encounters have come on clay-the choice surface of the Spaniard and the least favorite of the Swiss-Federer-Nadal has been, perhaps oxymoronically, a lopsided rivalry. It makes for strange times in men's tennis. With plenty of justification, many observers are ready to anoint Federer as the best player of all time. Yet for all his laurels, he can't seem to beat the man ranked directly below him. That prompts a question: How can King Roger be the best ever when one can now make the case that he might not be the best of his generation?
The latest instance of regicide came on Sunday afternoon in the French Open final. In a less-than-classic match Nadal successfully defended his title, recovering from an abysmal first set to win 1-6, 6-1, 6-4, 7-6. He not only denied Federer his first title at Roland Garros but deprived him as well of the "Roger Slam": Had Federer won on Sunday, he would have become the first man in 37 years to hold all four Grand Slam singles titles simultaneously. At least for 2006, Nadal also thwarted Federer's long-stated quest to become the first man since Rod Laver in 1969 to win the four majors in the same calendar year-tennis's ultimate achievement. "I'm disappointed because I really wanted to conclude the four Grand Slam tournaments with titles," Federer said after the match. "But he makes it tough, and I guess in the end he deserves to win."
Nadal has a singular ability to disable the gears of the Federer machine. He hits heavy topspin balls high to Federer's backhand, his decidedly weaker flank. (Midway through the fourth set on Sunday, Federer had committed a galling 30 backhand errors and had just four backhand winners.) Nadal scrambles from courtside flower bed to courtside flower bed retrieving shots, prolonging the points and exasperating Federer in the process. He whistles passing shots when Federer attacks the net. And above all, he plays the more poised tennis on the most meaningful points. Inasmuch as their back-and-forth rallies are a form of debate, Federer may have the wittier quips, but Nadal delivers the more substantive blows. "Here's what it is," says Mats Wilander, a three-time French Open champ. "Rafael has the one thing that Roger doesn't: balls. I don't even think Rafael has two; I think he has three."
Nadal's dominance on Sunday culminated a spring of peerless clay court tennis. He has now won 60 straight matches on clay, an ATP record, going back to April 2005. Over the past two months alone he has won four tournaments and more than $2 million in prize money, a career year for most players. At least on the terre battue, Nadal doesn't merely beat his opponents; he breaks them. As a dispirited Kevin Kim put it after losing to Nadal in the second round in Paris, "It felt like you're in the Sahara and you see the hills and there's no ending."
Nadal's tennis is all about violence. He runs so fast and so heavily that he leaves trenches in the clay after some points. Thanks to his strapping physique and his blinding racket-head acceleration, he delivers zinging shots, particularly on his nasty inside-out forehand. He thwacks the ball as if he'd overheard it talking smack about his mam�. "It's very physical tennis, and maybe it's not always so beautiful," he says, "but I play the way I know how to play."
Strange thing is, for all his aggression, once Nadal leaves the court he's averse to conflict. Two hours before the final, he was eating a monstrous portion of pasta and fish in the players' lounge when he was accosted by autograph hounds and tournament workers armed with digital cameras. Never ceasing to smile, he accommodated them all.
When Nadal heard that his semifinal victim, Ivan Ljubicic of Croatia, had complained about Nadal's slow play and expressed a preference for Federer in the final, he shrugged, declining to be drawn into controversy. "You know, everybody is free to say whatever they want," Nadal said. "I get on well with Ljubicic. I don't want to lose that good relationship with him." Asked whether, given his ritual thumping of Federer, he felt as if he were really the world's No. 1 player, Nadal responded, "It's a strange question. He's Number 1. I'm Number 2. I feel I'm Number 2, which is what I am."
Whatever the rankings, together Federer and Nadal have all but hijacked men's tennis, this at a time when the field allegedly has never been deeper. After Sunday's match, "Federdal" had claimed seven of the last eight major titles. Over that same period there have been seven female winners. The most recent is Belgium's Justine Henin-Hardenne, a Greta Van Susteren look-alike who defended her French Open dames title on Saturday with a businesslike 6-4, 6-4 dismissal of Russia's Svetlana Kuznetsova.
For all the talk of the unprecedented power coursing through the women's game, few players have Henin-Hardenne's ability to supplement percussive ball striking with other weapons. Her all-court skills, her ability to generate angles and her footwork are unsurpassed. "She just moves so well," said Kim Clijsters after Henin-Hardenne turned her into roadkill in the semifinals. "You think now you have a winner, but against her [the balls] just keep coming back." Henin-Hardenne's unshakable mental toughness-she says one of her great joys in life is staving off a break point in a tight match-makes her all the more formidable.
A few games from defeat against Am�lie Mauresmo in the final of January's Australian Open, Henin-Hardenne abruptly retired, citing a stomachache. Never regarded as the most sporting player, she was roundly criticized in the tennis salon for that decision. Her gritty play in Paris went a long way toward restoring her reputation. It's hard to accuse a player of disrespecting her sport when she extracts so much from her abilities. "I wanted to forget what happened in Melbourne, but it was in my mind a little bit," says Henin-Hardenne, 24, who has won five majors. "But it was more motivation than revenge."