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Friday, January 30, 2009
A lot at stake in the Oz finals

OK, so just how lucky are we?

In just a few short hours, we're going to see Serena Williams try to break double figures in her Grand Slam title count (she currently has nine). And 24 hours (give or take) after that, we'll see if Roger Federer can tie Pete Sampras' Grand Slam singles title record (14) with a win over his rival, world No. 1 Rafael Nadal.

Those are pretty gaudy numbers from future Hall of Famers; the NFL version of these finals would be getting to watch Joe Montana in the NFC title game on Saturday, then a Steelers-Cardin, er, Cowboys Super Bowl on Sunday. But let's look at some of the less obvious things that are at stake in the upcoming finals:

On the women's side, Dinara Safina has been unwittingly cast in the role of WTA face-saver, even though Serena is the WTA's greatest star and drawing card. For if Serena wins this title, it will just reinforce the idea that the No. 1 ranking is only up for grabs because Serena (and to some extent, her sister, Venus) can't be bothered to play enough events to earn the points to secure that station. If the Williamses were figure skaters, they would just mail it in during the short program, knowing they'll dominate the main event, the free skate.

If Safina wins the final, it says that players like the Williamses, who openly admit they aren't 100 percent dedicated to the weekly grind of the tour, can't dominate the game (remember, the Grand Slams of 2008 produced four different winners, even though two of them were Williamses). If Serena wins, it suggests that the other women win majors or reach No. 1 by default -- because Serena just doesn't want to do the grunt work to back up her ability to dominate the tour.

On the men's side, the big question is whether Nadal is capable of penetrating Federer's last bastion: hard courts. Two or three years ago, the idea that Nadal would win Wimbledon (back-to-back with Roland Garros, no less) before he won a hard-court major would have seemed improbable at best. His subsequent frustrations at the two hard-court majors (or 50 percent of the Grand Slam surface equation) suggested that Federer enjoyed a huge advantage in their rivalry.

Well, if Nadal manages to win in Melbourne, he will have struck an enormous blow to the heart of Federer's empire. Wimbledon remains the pre-eminent tennis event, so Federer's record there is the centerpiece of his résumé. But his hard-court Slam statistics are even more impressive. He has won seven of the last eight hard-court majors, including five straight U.S. Opens. With the striking exception of Ivan Lendl, no European or South American player has come anywhere near that level of proficiency.

In other words, the key to the future of the Federer-Nadal rivalry, which is really only about three years old, and to Nadal's long-term record, is whether Nadal can bring his hard-court game up to snuff. My own feeling on that front is that the mystique of Wimbledon, and the knowledge of what it means for a Spanish clay-courter to win on grass, took up a lot of his energy over the past three years. Now that he's checked Wimbledon off his to-do list, he can devote more of his psychic and emotional energy to the considerably less glamorous but ultimately more important mandate to improve his hard-court game.

Nadal had a magnificent win over Fernando Verdasco in the semifinals, but he paid a heavy price, physically, for the five-set triumph. Even more important, he seemed to revert to some clay-court techniques and strategies to secure the win (over a fellow clay-courter) -- habits that won't be of great use to him in this final.

If Nadal is going to reinvent himself as a hard-court wizard, Sunday is his day of reckoning.