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Monday, August 4, 2008
Updated: August 15, 3:03 PM ET
Nadal poses daunting task for Fed


It's official -- Rafael Nadal will assume the No. 1 ranking Aug. 18, changing places with Roger Federer. This represents a long-term achievement for Nadal, who began his campaign to unseat the Swiss maestro from a bunker in the clay, conceding the grass and hard courts to Federer while he built a game that would ultimately give him a chance on the other surfaces as well.

People love Nadal's combative spirit and his rough-hewn game, but few have bothered to pay homage to the way he has operated out of his red dirt base and gradually expanded his domain. There's a technical component to Nadal's ascent that is often overlooked. He's carved away the fat that serves as insurance on clay but becomes as a liability on faster surfaces. He worked to become a player who operates aggressively and efficiently, from further inside the court, on faster courts.

This Federer-Nadal rivalry has been extraordinary; Federer secured the record for most consecutive weeks at No. 1 (236), while Nadal locked down a slightly less impressive but unique mark of his own: most weeks at No. 2 (159). Beyond that, the idea that a player can win four majors without attaining the No. 1 ranking (as Nadal did) is mind-boggling. That's because winning multiple majors represents the gold standard in tennis. It's almost a forgone conclusion that a player who nails down even two or three Grand Slams can't avoid being No. 1 if he tried.

Now that top two players are about to change places, it's a good time to look at the challenge posed for Federer.

The Mighty Fed will be in unfamiliar territory at No. 2, and in order to reclaim his spot at the top, he'll have to showa degree of grit, determination and confidence he hasn't had to demonstrate yet in his career. That doesn't mean he lacks those qualities -- just that he hasn't had to rely on them. His ascent to the top was gradual and therefore stress free. Once he got to the top, he ran wild and utterly dominated the game. This is never as easy as it looks, of course, but the fact remains that the greatest of players have demonstrated a talent for overcoming adversity -- to dig deep and win matches with their hearts, not just their hands.

On that score, we don't know who Federer is just yet, but we're about to find out. Though he has 12 Grand Slam singles titles, and may even surpass Pete Sampras' record of 14, he hasn't had to show his ability to navigate typical bumps along a career road. And now that the wear and tear is taking a toll, physically as well as mentally and emotionally, the task will be that much more daunting -- though not unrealistic, given his talent and reputation.

This line of thinking proceeds with no regard to the quality of the competition during the period when Federer dominated -- that's something over which Federer has no control, and for which he certainly can't be blamed. But it does have something to do with that quality we call "character." The hero's task Federer must undertake is taking back what Nadal has stripped from him. If he doesn't do that, he'll be a lesser player -- even if he ends up the all-time Grand Slam champ. Because at the end of the day, stats are just stats and cross-generational comparisons are somewhat absurd.

Federer has declared himself a candidate for GOAT (greatest of all time), but there's one guy in his generation whom he can't beat regularly. In order to complete his amazing journey in tennis, Federer needs to reclaim that No. 1 ranking, the way so many other great players have done, even if he can't hold it for another four-year span.