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Tuesday, March 23, 2010
Rooting for the Federer-Nadal rivalry


Are we nearing the end of the rivalry? Or, worse still, is it already over?

I'm talking about Roger Federer versus Rafael Nadal, of course, the finest rivalry in the history of tennis. My colleague Peter Bodo fears (reasonably) that the rivalry has seen its best days, and that there may not be many days left as Federer ages and Nadal struggles to stay healthy. A look at stat sheet reveals a clear trend: Federer and Nadal have played 20 times, once in 2004, twice in 2005, six times in 2006, five times in 2007, four times in 2008 (including the historic Wimbledon final) and twice in 2009. They haven't gone a year without playing each other since 2004 and 2005, when they played their first two matches (both in Miami). If they don't meet before this year's French Open, it will be the longest break from each other since their first meeting.

At first glance, last week's chaos in Indian Wells, where Federer lost early and Nadal couldn't put away Ivan Ljubicic, the eventual champion, doesn't bode well for the rivalry's future. But after a few days to reflect on that tournament, I'm feeling hopeful for a renaissance. Federer was rusty in Indian Wells, but he was healthy and moving well, two sure signs that he's about to play some good tennis. Nadal looked great save a few uncharacteristic errors against Ljubicic, and he played without hesitation or concern for his knees.

Here's some more good news for rivalry fans: Although Federer and Nadal look to be on the upswing, their best challengers seem headed in the other direction, especially the big three of Novak Djokovic, Andy Murray and Juan Martin del Potro. Djokovic has moved up in the rankings, but his game and his attitude have fallen off in recent months. Murray played poorly in the Australian Open final and hasn't looked convincing since then. Del Potro withdrew from Miami as he recovers from a wrist injury.

The draws in Miami are such that I like the chances of Federer and Nadal meeting a week from Sunday. The highest-ranked player in Federer's quarter is Marin Cilic; he could face Andy Murray in the semifinals. Nadal might have to contend with two towers of serve, Ivo Karlovic and John Isner, in his quarter, and then either Andy Roddick or Novak Djokovic in the semifinals. (Nadal has a much easier time with those two players than he does with del Potro, who pummeled Nadal at last year's U.S. Open.)

A meeting in Miami, where the rivalry began and where Federer once beat Nadal in the final after losing the first two sets, would be fitting.

That's not all the fans crave, though. Now that Federer has won the French Open, another final there would be a treat (assuming Nadal, who is now ranked No. 4, doesn't end up in Federer's half of the draw). Federer certainly wants a rematch at Wimbledon. And there's still one place these two have not met: The U.S. Open. That's the one I most want to see, so much so that I'd trade in all future meetings for a single U.S. Open final. After that, I'd be willing to let the rivalry die, as it would surely be remembered as the best the game has known.

What about you? Is the rivalry over, or do we have a few good years left? Which future match would you want to see most?