Forget A-Rod, Nadal looms as Federer's great nemesis

3/7/2006 - Tennis

DUBAI, United Arab Emirates -- In the latest installment of a budding rivalry that just might reach Sampras-Agassi or Borg-McEnroe proportions one day, teenage phenom Rafael Nadal of Spain extended his mastery over world No. 1 Roger Federer, 2-6, 6-4, 6-4, Saturday in the finals of the Dubai Duty Free Men's Open.

Nadal, 19, now holds a 3-1 career advantage over the seven-time Grand Slam winner, who's widely touted to eventually surpass Pete Sampras' 14 career Grand Slams. Nadal fired an important first salvo in the battle for supremacy between the pair in 2006 in front of a crowd that included 11-time Grand Slam winner Bjorn Borg.

The world No. 2, winner of last year's French Open among his 11 titles in 2005, was playing in just his second tournament since injuring his left foot last October at the Madrid Masters Series tournament.

"To be out for three months with the injury and then to beat Roger is a very special thing," said Nadal. "It's unbelievable for me."

In the process, Nadal snapped Federer's 56-match winning streak on hard courts, handing him his first loss on the surface since he lost a semifinal match to Marat Safin at the 2005 Australian Open.

Men's tennis has been without a compelling rivalry since Sampras laid down his racket after his 2002 U.S. Open win over Agassi, ending a storied, 13-year rivalry with his compatriot in which Sampras finished with a 20-14 lifetime edge.

And while many in and around the game had hoped that Andy Roddick would be able to provide Federer with a worthy foil, that hoped-for rivalry has failed to take off. As Roddick said after one of his two consecutive losses to Federer in the 2004 and 2005 Wimbledon finals, "Rivalry? I've got to win one of these to make it a rivalry." Federer holds a 10-1 lifetime advantage over Roddick.

But whenever Nadal's looming on the other side of the draw from the otherwise incomparable Swiss, Federer's path to tennis immortality faces a formidable roadblock.

For his part, Nadal says all the right things in his limited but improving English. He's seemingly content to play Avis to Federer's Hertz and showered his opponent with praise after the match.

"He's the best sportsman, I think, in the world," said Nadal. "He has a lot of humble."

When asked if his thoughts were on supplanting Federer at No. 1, Nadal said he was only looking ahead to the coming week's Masters Series tournament in Indian Wells, and quite content for the moment to be No. 2 to the "unbelievable" Federer.

But it's evident that Nadal has the weaponry to disrupt the immensely talented Swiss, and a competitive will that few players exhibit so nakedly or to such advantage.

Along with his trademark shouts of "Vamos!" and his leaping fist-pump after big points, Nadal's body language at the outset of the match spoke volumes.

After the players met at the net for the coin flip that would determine who served first, Nadal sprinted back to the baseline, doing a bob-and-weave that conjured images of players sprinting through the tunnel when introduced at the Super Bowl, while Federer coolly strolled to his baseline.

For his part, Federer seemed unfazed by the loss, his first in 2006 after 16 consecutive wins.

"Rafa was just better today. I gave him too many chances on second serves in the last two sets and he broke me at the right time [to go up 5-4 in each of the last two sets].

"I think he deserved to win, he was more consistent and played better in the end."

Asked what Nadal is able to do to him that other players are not, Federer paused for a moment before answering.

"He's a good player, I've never denied it. He's such a good lefty and that doesn't make it any easier on the serve and with the cross-court forehand."

Only two other active players sport a winning record (two matches or more) against the Swiss. Argentina's David Nalbandian, who holds a 6-4 lifetime advantage against Federer, and Great Britain's Tim Henman, who's also 6-4.

The win here in Dubai is sure to provide a big boost to the Spaniard's confidence heading into the two Masters Series tournaments this month in Indian Wells and in Miami.

With his foot injury apparently healed and specially made orthopedic shoes on the way from Nike, Nadal looks to be in good shape to provide men's tennis with the other half of the rivalry that it's been looking for. For the moment, on any surface other than Wimbledon's grass, he's clearly capable, all of his self-deprecation aside, of turning the tables on Federer and closing the gap that exists at the top of the men's game.

Whit Sheppard is a Paris-based sportswriter and writes for a variety of international publications.