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Courtly Rivals
L. Jon Wertheim
August 27, 2007
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
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August 27, 2007

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

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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 Raton last 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 d�tente 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."

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."

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