- Bonnie D. Ford, ESPN Senior Writer
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It was only two years ago that Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal met in a gimmicky exhibition match on a half-grass, half-clay court on Nadal's home turf of Mallorca, Spain. The idea may have been contrived, but it also mapped out what we thought we had -- a neatly defined coexistence in which each man was supreme within his own rectangle.
Now it's clear that we completely underestimated both of these players when we assigned each a designated patch of earth. Federer and Nadal began poaching on each other's territory last year, annexing property once thought to be safely under the other man's control and challenging our notions of their limitations. "We're in the guts of it," Martina Navratilova said of the men's dramatic timeline. "It's a beauty."
The last 14 months have been a disorienting, riveting and unpredictable stretch in a rivalry that seemed almost static while Federer and Nadal occupied the same positions in the rankings from mid-2005 to late summer 2008. The inertia was a little misleading, of course, since both players were clearly striving to better themselves on their weaker surface. After a couple of rounds of musical chairs, Federer and Nadal have come to rest at No. 1 and No. 3 respectively entering the U.S. Open.
Nadal, thought to be the more physically vulnerable of the two men because of his pounding, wearing style of play, proved impregnable in 2008. He closed the gap to become the ATP's No. 1 and won his fourth French Open title and his first non-clay Grand Slam final in an instant classic, defeating Federer at Wimbledon. Leading up to the epic at the All England Club, Federer had taken months to make a full recovery from mononucleosis.
Just as critics were ready to write off Federer's 2008 season, he rose to the occasion to win the U.S. Open. Then, when he seemed poised to capture his 14th Grand Slam in Australia, Nadal wrestled him down in the final of that hard-court major and the karma seemed to shift yet again -- only to have Nadal's tender knees go out from under him.
After Nadal's early exit from Roland Garros, Federer finally conquered Paris. He followed up with his record 15th Grand Slam title at Wimbledon, holding off the resurgent Andy Roddick in a marathon final as an injured Nadal watched from home.
What's next? Most likely, a continuation of the recent seesawing dynamics and more parity on all surfaces -- as long as Nadal stays sound and Federer remains motivated.
Federer has packed years worth of emotion into the last nine months. He wept with frustration after the final in Melbourne, considered hiring a coach and ultimately didn't, announced he was to become a father, quietly married longtime partner Mirka Vavrinec, wept with joy in Paris, and welcomed his twin daughters in late July.
Since May, he has broken a troubling 0-for-11 streak against the three players closest to him in the rankings -- Nadal, Novak Djokovic and Andy Murray -- and ended a two-year drought of hard-court Masters titles last week in Cincinnati. "It was like watching the end of 'The Godfather,'" said ESPN analyst Mary Carillo, referring to Don Michael Corleone's systematic assassination of his enemies in the first film of the trilogy.
Meanwhile, the 23-year-old Nadal traded in his sleeveless shirts and pirate pants for a polo shirt and shorts, looked unassailable in Australia, wrapped and unwrapped his knees, made vague reference to personal issues, won four more tournaments and was finally humbled at Roland Garros for the first time in five years and 32 matches. He returned for two hard-court events after resting his sore knees and, despite uneven play, reached the quarterfinals in Montreal and the semis in Cincinnati.
The traveling show has arrived in New York, where in past years Nadal has been largely discounted for the title and Federer is a five-time defending champion. Federer looked simultaneously sharp and relaxed in his march to the Cincinnati championship -- his second tournament since coming back from paternity leave. In a new twist, Nadal will be trying to shake off unaccustomed rust from a two-month layoff instead of battling through fatigue as he usually is this time of year.
The rivals have landed in opposite halves of the draw, leaving open the fan-pleasing possibility of a collision in the only Grand Slam final where they've never met. Roddick and Djokovic, who are in Federer's half, and Murray and Juan Martin del Potro, who are in Nadal's, intend to do all they can to break up that party.
John McEnroe, who will call matches for ESPN, said he, like many, keeps thinking Federer will have to come down from his emotional high at some point -- but McEnroe isn't holding his breath. The four-time U.S. Open champion said he couldn't think of another player who seemed as driven even after achieving so much.
"I don't know how the guy keeps doing it," McEnroe told ESPN.com Thursday. "His résumé is complete. The pressure's off now -- it's much more on Murray because he's never won one [Slam], or Roddick, because he's been trying to win another one for so long."
As admiring as he is of Federer, McEnroe said he's also bullish on Nadal's chances in New York despite the Spaniard's interrupted season.
"He really only missed six weeks," McEnroe said. "If he can get through the first few matches and get to the semis, he could be reasonably fresh -- maybe the freshest one -- instead of mentally exhausted like he was last year."
Whatever the results at the U.S. Open, it seems clear that we're about to enter a very different phase of the Federer-Nadal rivalry, one where the upper hand shifts continually. The bigger question is how long a phase it might be given Federer's age (28) and Nadal's vulnerable legs.
"Enjoy it while it lasts," McEnroe said.
Bonnie D. Ford covers tennis and Olympic sports for ESPN.com. She can be reached at email@example.com.
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