A rivalry Americans can get behind

Brad Gilbert explains why a rivalry that involves two foreign players will be one American fans can get excited about.

Updated: May 24, 2006, 1:58 PM ET
By Brad Gilbert | Special to ESPN.com

Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal are ranked No. 1 and No. 2, respectively, on the ATP Tour. Federer won the Australian Open in January, and if he wins the French Open, he will own all four Grand Slam titles at the same time (he won Wimbledon and the U.S. Open last year).

Federer is 38-3 in 2006, with all three losses coming against 19-year-old Nadal.

Federer-Nadal has the potential to be a great rivalry. I also think it's the first time the American public can accept a rivalry that doesn't involve an American. Both players are popular, and I can see either one winning the French Open.

Rafael Nadal
Even Roger Federer says Rafael Nadal is the player to beat at the French Open.
How does this become a great rivalry? Over the next 18 to 24 months, these two will need to play in the finals of Grand Slams -- that's how it becomes a great rivalry. (Federer and Nadal have yet to meet in the final of a Grand Slam event.) Like a boxing match, they go toe-to-toe for 15 rounds. Nadal has won all three meetings this year, but all have been intensely close.

During the next two to three years, Federer-Nadal has the potential to get to the Andre Agassi-Pete Sampras level, just without the American angle. Nadal is so much fun to watch. He has the flashy look -- like Agassi -- and Federer is decked out in Nike gear like Sampras. They have different styles. Nadal's left-handed and Federer is a righty, yet they match up so well when they play each other. Even though Nadal has won the past four meetings with Federer, you still can have a rivalry in which the two parties involved play intensely close matches, as they did earlier this month in Rome.

Right now, it has been one-sided in favor of Nadal (5-1 lifetime against Federer), but I think if the two played on a hard court or on grass, it would be incredibly intriguing. Nadal is hitting his peak (he turns 20 on June 3) and is a serious talent outside the clay court, and I don't see him being stuck at No. 2 forever. He's too good.

If they could play in the final of the U.S Open, the American crowd would be won over and people would forget there isn't an American involved.

But before they meet in the final of the U.S. Open, I want to see them meet in the final of the French. That's the final I want to see, 100 percent. The countdown to that final is going to kill me. It will be an epic story, and that's all I want to see.

Brad Gilbert, former top-five player and former coach of Andre Agassi, is providing ESPN.com with analysis throughout the French Open. For more, log onto bradgilberttennis.com

Former player-turned coach and author Brad Gilbert is an analyst on ESPN's extensive schedule of tennis programming, including, since 2009, all four majors  the Australian Open, the French Open, Wimbledon and US Open. He joined ESPN in 2004 and serves as a studio analyst, match analyst and sideline reporter. After leaving to return to coaching rising star Andy Murray of Scotland in 2006, he came back to ESPN in 2008.