HE STANDS 6'1", weighs 185 pounds and can send a tennis ball pretty much anywhere he pleases. He's won on a variety of surfaces, collecting Grand Slam singles titles at a breakneck pace. He projects professionalism and grace and a distinctly European dignity. For all his success, he remains modest and grounded, uninterested in the usual trappings of modern celebrity, attracting attention only with his play. � If that describes Roger Federer, it just as easily characterizes Rafael Nadal. With all the differences that give dimension to their rivalry, it's easy to overlook how much these two men have in common. Now there's this, too: They're both pursuing history.
The Republic of Tennis was poised the past two weeks to watch Federer equal Pete Sampras's record of 14 major singles titles—thereby solidifying his status as the Greatest of All Time—but it was Nadal who stole the scene at the 2009 Australian Open. The Spaniard didn't merely win his first hard-court major on Sunday. Or beat Federer yet again in a high-stakes match. Or play some of the most courageous tennis in recent memory. He served notice that maybe he ought to be mentioned in the GOAT conversation too. Nadal might not be on the threshold of tennis history, as Federer is, but with six major titles by age 22—compared with three apiece for Sampras and Federer—he's sure coming on strong.
In Melbourne he won by playing what Martina Navratilova calls "typical Nadal tennis." That is, he combined relentless defense with opportunistic offense. "I try to do what I need to win," he says simply. Sometimes he didn't have to do much—in his first five matches he didn't drop a set. Other times he was forced to tap reserves that few other players possess: It took him 10 sets and nearly 10 hours on the court to win his last two matches.
Sunday night's match was Federer-Nadal XIX, and the rivalry remains gripping theater. After winning 7--5, 3--6, 7--6, 3--6, 6--2, Nadal now leads 13--6, including the straight-set whitewash in last year's French Open final and the dramatic five-set triumph at Wimbledon in July. Nadal could scarcely be more reverential toward Federer—the King, he's taken to calling him—but he relishes having another tennis genius with whom to match skills and wits.
Federer, on the other hand, still hasn't warmed to the challenge. Partly it's because of Nadal's unusual lefthanded game, particularly the spin-laden shots that bounce uncomfortably high to Federer's one-handed backhand. But much of it is clearly psychological. Against Nadal, Federer can be uncharacteristically passive and self-defeating. On Sunday night he double-faulted at inopportune times, missed scads of first serves and looked slump-shouldered for much of the match. "I never really found the rhythm," he said.
Federer will get plenty of unsolicited advice on how to solve the Nadal Riddle. For years, many have implored him to hire a full-time coach. Commentator and U.S. Davis Cup captain Pat McEnroe is among those suggesting he visit a shrink, "someone to get inside his head." Others have recommended that Federer summon more animus toward Nadal, but that's easier said than done. Asked after the match if he were the "true King," Nadal brushed off the question. "For sure [it was] an important title," he says, "but I'm no better now than I was five hours [ago]."
APART FROM his seven opponents, Nadal also withstood Melbourne's oppressive heat. Temperatures in the city regularly eclipsed 108�, igniting brushfires and buckling train tracks. Citizens were warned against venturing outdoors. The matches continued as scheduled at Melbourne Park, but the heat so brutalized the players that during changeovers they often donned ice collars. (Note to Nike: New sponsorship opportunity?) Even the fittest players were laid low. Complaining of exhaustion, Serbia's Novak Djokovic, the third seed and defending men's champ, retired while trailing Andy Roddick in the quarterfinals. Djokovic took some, well, heat for quitting, but it was hard to fault him: On-court temperatures approached 140�.
The same heat that ruined the tournament for so many players may ultimately have saved Serena Williams. In the fourth round she lost the first set to Victoria Azarenka, a talented teen from Belarus. Soon after, Azarenka began wobbling like a spaghetti-legged boxer and retired, citing dizziness. The second-seeded Williams next faced Russia's Svetlana Kuznetsova and, again playing in ovenlike conditions, lost the first set. She was so hot, Williams says, "it was like an out-of-body experience." At this point tournament organizers made the wise if overdue decision to close the retractable roof above Rod Laver Stadium. Suddenly the match was an indoor, air-conditioned affair. Williams prevailed in three sets.
By then she had "caught a gear," as the Aussies say, dialing in her serve and finding the range on her ground strokes, particularly on service returns. In the semifinals she blasted Russia's Elena Dementieva. In the final, her easiest match in Melbourne, Williams humiliated Dinara Safina, still another Russian—they just keep coming—6--0, 6--3. Williams was so dominating that, Safina said, "I was just a ballboy on the court today."
A few hours before Saturday night's final, Williams was warming up with her big sister Venus and hitting balls so hard that a substitute practice partner was summoned. Yet, much like Nadal, Williams is even stronger mentally. Defeat is simply not a consideration for her; even in the most adverse conditions she projects an unshakable confidence. "I always believe I'm the best," she says flatly, "whether I'm Number 1 or 100."