Will Nadal be recovered in time?


MELBOURNE, Australia -- Oh, the grin Roger Federer must have had planted on his face watching Rafael Nadal exert himself for over five arduous hours just to get to the final. Federer not only vanquished semifinal foe Andy Roddick in a routine three-set match, he's had an extra day's rest. Enjoying a renaissance since a gloomy first half of 2008, the sovereign Swiss is one win away from equaling Pete Sampras' all-time Grand Slam record.

Make no mistake, though. Nadal is a genetic oddity. If anyone is able to recover from a grueling encounter, it's the irrepressible world No. 1. Nadal also holds a 4-2 advantage in Grand Slam final matches versus Federer, highlighted by last year's demolition at the French Open and a breathtaking Wimbledon finale.

After all the discourse exalting the bevy of legitimate men's contenders, we're again left with the world's top two players in a Grand Slam final.

So who comes out on top? Sandra Harwitt and Kamakshi Tandon square off.

The final matchup that everyone was drooling to see between world No. 1 Rafael Nadal and No. 2 Roger Federer became a reality Friday night at the Australian Open. That's when Nadal survived a 5-hour, 14-minute thriller against Spanish compatriot Fernando Verdasco; the longest match, in terms of time, in Australian Open history.

Sunday's final is the first meeting between the two highest-profile players in the game since Nadal ended the five-year Federer regime at Wimbledon in July 2008.

Nadal is bidding for a first Grand Slam hard-court trophy to add to his major titles. When Nadal first emerged on the scene, it was thought that he would become solely a clay-court impresario -- his four-year reign over the French Open surely supports his ability on dirt.

But the Spaniard has proved he can flex his muscles on all surfaces.

Nadal's southpaw stroke-making has bewildered Federer from the outset. Proof comes in their head-to-head total, which Nadal leads 12-6, not to mention he won all four of their matches played in 2008.

There will be those who are concerned about Nadal's recovery after his marathon outing with Verdasco. But it bears keeping in mind there's hardly a fitter, stronger, more determined player to grace a tennis court than Nadal. This is a 22-year-old who can run all day, every day, and come back and do it again the next day. He powers his way to victories by working it from the baseline, so long rallies and long matches are the benchmark of his brand of tennis.

To those who think he'll be at a disadvantage because of his prolonged semifinal, think again. Let's not forget that he became the first player in history to tear through the French Open on clay, Queen's Club on grass and Wimbledon on grass during a six-week run last year.

Nadal is always respectful of Federer's place in the game; he repeatedly says Federer will go down in history as the best ever. But Nadal also knows all too well that he has continually had Federer's number.

-- Sandra Harwitt

Roger Federer

Rafael Nadal's historic problems on hard courts have actually been a frustration for Roger Federer advocates.

Nadal might lead 12-6 in the head-to-head series, they say, but the record is lopsided because Nadal doesn't reach finals on hard courts like Federer does on clay. Only five of their 18 meetings have come on the hard stuff, and Federer has won three of those.

But the fact that this Grand Slam final is on a hard court is not the defining factor in the match. Remember, after all, that Nadal got Federer on the Swiss' best surface (grass) at Wimbledon last year.

The defining factor is that this final isn't on clay. It's on clay where Nadal's topspin bounces too high for Federer to swing at full strength, where the Spaniard can retreat far behind the baseline to construct an almost impenetrable defense, where he can pound for hours without feeling the impact on his knees and feet.

Because this final is not on clay, Federer knows he will not be helpless, even if Nadal is having a good day. If the Swiss serves well, as he has been doing in his past couple of matches, Federer will be able to win his service games easily and be aggressive when returning Nadal's serve, pushing him deep behind the baseline and opening up the court for his own skillful shot-making.

Psychologically, too, Federer has more to fuel him: A win would tie him with Pete Sampras for 14 Grand Slams. Nadal does have the prospect of winning his first hard-court Slam, but there is a palpable feeling that just making the final has been an achievement.

Finally, even if the match is tight, Nadal's 5-hour, 14-minute effort against Verdasco means Federer will have the physical advantage in a long contest, particularly since Nadal can expect to do most of the running Sunday.

-- Kamakshi Tandon