- Greg Garber, Writer, Reporter
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NEW YORK -- Before the U.S. Open, the two best tennis players in the world traded friendly forehands -- known in the sport's promotional business as hits and giggles -- on a court laid down at the busy intersection of 54th and Lexington in Manhattan.
Everyone in the tennis community (with the possible exception of the U.S. Tennis Association, which fairly aches for an Andy Roddick renaissance) is hoping Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal matriculate to the championship final in 12 days.
"I think it's been interesting, not only for us, but for the entire game," Federer said two days before the tournament began. "The two of us being one and two in the world, I think that is always a bit more interesting."
That same day, Nadal was asked who would win a boxing match between the two.
"Maybe me," he said smiling. "I am a little bit more tougher, no?"
Maybe just a little bit.
While Federer has won two of the three Grand Slams contested this year (the Australian Open and Wimbledon), he has lost four of his five matches with Nadal, the French Open champion. The spirited quality of their play in the finals at Monte Carlo, Rome, Roland Garros and Wimbledon -- eight of their 14 sets in those events were settled by a tiebreaker -- has folks excited about a rematch.
With good reason. The Wimbledon final changed the chemistry of their complicated relationship. Nadal had never advanced beyond the third round at Wimbledon, but by winning six matches on the slippery grass at the All England Club, he suggested he might be capable of playing with Federer on the hard surfaces at the Australian Open and the U.S. Open.
On Wednesday, the two top seeds advanced to the second round with little stress. Nadal took out the once-dangerous Mark Philippoussis 6-4, 6-4, 6-4 and Federer handled Yeu-Tzuoo Wang 6-4, 6-1, 6-0.
"I thought I played pretty well," Federer said, in effect speaking for both of them. "Not too many mistakes. I played aggressive, and it worked out."
They are fire and ice, Nadal's Spanish sizzle opposite Federer's Swiss cool. The fact that they have won 10 of the last 13 Grand Slam singles titles underlines their dominance. In a relatively brief slice of time, they have developed quite a history between them. A victory in the final, by either man, will make a good deal more.
The prospects for Federer, contextually speaking, are dazzling.
The 25-year-old would be the first man to win three consecutive U.S. Open titles since Ivan Lendl, some 19 years ago. John McEnroe (1979-81) is the only other player in the Open Era to do it. A victory would also make Federer the only man in history to win Wimbledon and the U.S. Open in back-to-back-to-back fashion. A triple-double, if you will. The late, great Bill Tilden (1920-21) and Don Budge (1937-38) managed that difficult double-double, but failed in their bids for the triple.
Nadal, 20, is trying to become only the sixth man in the Open Era to win the French Open and the U.S. Open, a tribute to his increasingly versatile game.
There's more: If Federer and Nadal reach the final here it will be the first time in 42 years that the same two men have appeared in the finals of three Grand Slam events in the same calendar year.
Their recent results from the hard-court season, however, have not been exactly ethereal.
Federer took off a month after winning Wimbledon and came back to win all six of his matches at the Tennis Masters Series event in Toronto. But it is a measure of Federer's greatness that his form was widely critiqued; he lost one set in each of his last four matches.
Two weeks ago in Cincinnati, Federer lost to Andy Murray in the second round, prompting analyst Mary Carillo to observe that he had tanked. That loss ended a 55-match winning streak on hard courts that stretched over two years.
Nadal's summer has been similarly uninspired. He lost a third-round match to Tomas Berdych in Toronto and suffered a straight-sets defeat in the Cincinnati quarterfinals to Juan Carlos Ferrero.
"I feel the ball much better today than [in] Cincinnati, no?" Nadal said after defeating Philippoussis. "I play my best match for sure in the last three weeks. I was playing like this in Wimbledon. I need [to] get a little bit [of] confidence and play a little bit more aggressive."
After his match, Federer did not seem fazed by the prospect of another Nadal-Federer final.
"I think the draws for both of us are pretty good," Federer said. "I mean, I don't think of playing him right now -- not at all -- because it's just too long of a road. Not only do I have to get there, but him, as well.
"Just the other 126 players don't agree with that, so they will try to not make it happen."
Greg Garber is a senior writer for ESPN.com.
1dKevin Van Valkenburg