• U.S.

A Duel to Fuel Tennis

8 minute read
Sean Gregory

Who’s your Euro? That’s the question for tennis fans at the U.S. Open, which gets under way this week in New York City. Is it the melted-chocolate-smooth Swiss, Roger Federer, 25, or the bulldog from Spain, Rafael (Rafa) Nadal, 20? The top-ranked players in the world–Federer is No. 1, Nadal No. 2–have met in two major finals this summer, with the dirtballing specialist Nadal spoiling Federer’s bid for the Grand Slam by beating him on the clay at the French Open. Federer, in turn, held serve against Rafa on the drag-strip grass at Wimbledon to win his fourth straight title at the fortnight.

A finals duel in Flushing, N.Y., could be the hard-court rubber match and fuel a high-profile clash that professional tennis craves. Although the two players downplay the rivalry, it was the fierce face-offs between John McEnroe and Jimmy Connors, and McEnroe and nerveless Swede Bjorn Borg, that drove the sport to its heights. Since 1992, the year Jimmy and Mac finally hung up their racquets, the number of Americans playing tennis has fallen 36%, to 11 million, according to the National Sporting Goods Association. Television ratings have trended downward too.

Don’t count on American players to revive the game’s popularity. Sure, a hometown surprise is always possible in Queens. Slumping Andy Roddick took an Open tune-up tournament in Cincinnati, Ohio; Harvard man James Blake, ranked fifth in the world, is a serious threat; and after Andre Agassi’s fairy-tale romp to last year’s final, you can’t discount the 36-year-old in the last tournament of his career. But a stunning American meltdown at Wimby–for the first time in nearly a century, no U.S. man or woman reached the quarterfinals–underscored the fact that U.S. tennis is on a downswing. Blame the lack of matchups, the Tiger Woods–inspired golf boom or the rise of extreme sports to occupy kids’ time–bottom line, tennis in the U.S. is looking to Roger and Rafa. “We need something,” says famed tennis coach Nick Bollettieri, sculptor of greats from Agassi to the Williams sisters to Maria Sharapova. “It’s far too dry. And the common ingredient in all rivalries is the contrast, in styles of play or in personalities.”

Roger and Rafa offer dozens of differences. Federer, the two-time defending U.S. Open champ who has won eight Grand Slam singles titles, threatening Pete Sampras’ record of 14 championships, is refined (he wore a cream-colored blazer to his Wimbledon matches) and sublime. “The way Roger moves, he’s a ballet dancer out there,” says McEnroe. “He floats above the court. His style is the most beautiful I’ve seen.” Federer’s volleys, awe-inspiring angled shots, and fluid one-handed backhand recall a bygone serve-and-volley era before today’s high-tech racquets encouraged players to grip and rip missiles from the baseline. Says veteran tennis broadcaster Bud Collins: “He looks as though he woke up from a time capsule.”

Nadal is James Dean to Federer’s Cary Grant. With his shoulder-length hair, garish Capri pants (he will ditch them for the Open, he promises), sleeveless shirts that show off biceps that bulge like the Pyrenees, and hit-and-grunt technique, Nadal is the loudest player on tour. “He’s like the bulls running down the street in [Pamplona],” says Bollettieri. “The bulls are going to run over every goddam thing–houses, anything.” Another Nadal trademark is the leaping fist-pump; he leaves no emotion in the locker room. “This is who I am,” he says. “I do what comes at the moment. It’s nothing prepared.” Nadal favors the power game, but his speed separates him from the pack, especially on clay, which delivers high bounces that allow him to get to shots only cartoon characters should reach. Spanish players have traditionally flourished on clay courts, but Nadal is in another category. He’s won a record 60 straight matches on dirt. “I’ve never seen the guy get tired,” says McEnroe.

Agassi is old enough to have faced both McEnroe and Nadal, and he’s attracted more to Nadal’s spray-paint style than Federer’s tennis classicism. “Roger just makes it look too easy,” says Agassi, who lost to Federer in last year’s U.S. Open final and fell to Nadal in the third round of this year’s Wimbledon. “He has so many options out there on the tennis court. It’s easier to identify with Nadal. Federer puts fans in the position where all they can do is marvel.”

The Majorcan’s singular ability to disrupt Federer’s dominance is the spark that could ignite a long-term duel. Federer is universally recognized as one of history’s all-time greats, perhaps the greatest, yet he has dropped six of his eight matches against Nadal. Rafa has a technical advantage: he’s a lefty, so his topspin-heavy forehand often crosses high to Federer’s backhand, forcing Federer out of position. But more important, Nadal toys with Federer’s psyche. “Rafa must be in Roger’s head,” says Croatian Ivan Ljubicic, the world’s third-ranked player and one of Federer’s close friends. “There’s no other explanation.” Federer denies that Nadal has spooked him.

During their French Open final, which Nadal won in four sets, Federer looked particularly flustered. “The pleasure of watching Federer play is that you can see him thinking out there,” says sportscaster and ex-pro Mary Carillo. “You can watch him sizing up the situation and making adjustments in his game and changing something around, and he never did that against Nadal.” Federer backhands the chatter about his lack of mental fortitude. “Nadal is just more obvious about his fighting qualities,” he says. “I fight like crazy, even though it doesn’t look like I am. Maybe because I have such a relaxed style of play.”

Although their contrasts are stark, the pair shares more than the spotlight and a sponsor (Nike). Neither has let success swell his head or his entourage. In 2003 Federer, who grew up in the northern Swiss city of Basel, broke free from sports agency IMG and dumped his coach. He started winning every tournament in sight. His girlfriend, former women’s pro Mirka Vavrinec, managed most of Federer’s affairs. “We had a great time just going it alone,” says Federer. “I learned a lot about myself and my team because I only had people working with me whom I 100% trusted.” He did hire a part-time coach in early 2005, and re-signed with IMG that summer, in part to ease Vavrinec’s workload. “She would have to get tough with the media [and] say no,” Federer says. “People would say she is a bad person. She is my girlfriend, after all, so it was a conflict at times.” The move also boosted his earnings. IMG helped Federer sign a $15 million deal with Rolex.

At least Federer moved out of the house. Nadal still lives with his parents in Majorca and hasn’t even changed his cell-phone number since notching the past two French Open titles. “What changed?” he asks. “Just one more trophy.” Nadal’s tough-love uncle Toni Nadal has coached Rafa since he was a child and lectured him on overspending and keeping his cool. (Another uncle, Miguel Angel Nadal, is a former Spanish soccer star nicknamed “the Beast of Barcelona.”) Nadal has never tossed a racquet in his life.

Perhaps Roger and Rafa are a bit too civil. Uncle Toni has provided the matchup its only whiff of controversy. In May, during an epic 5-hr., five-set tournament final, which Nadal won, Federer accused Toni of coaching Rafa from the stands, which is illegal. “Is that all right, Toni?” Federer sarcastically barked at Nadal’s uncle during the match in Rome. “It’s stupid to have a coach for nothing,” Rafa says. “That rule is going to change, I promise you.” Federer doesn’t think it should. “It’s just the way it’s always been,” he says, becoming a bit curt. More Toni, please.

Is this the bulletin-board material we’ve been looking for? “I don’t feel like he’s better than me,” Nadal says of Federer. RAFA TALKS TRASH TO ROGER! Sadly, no, just a little nuance lost in translation, as Nadal is still working on his English (a book, 2001 Spanish and English Idioms, sits on his hotel bed). Emotions aren’t results, he quickly adds. “That’s the truth: he’s better than me. It’s not my feeling. You can see the numbers, you can see the details,” referring to Federer’s top ranking and eight Grand Slams, compared with two for Nadal. But Roger turned pro in 1998, three years before Nadal, and won his first Grand Slam at 21. Nadal won last year’s French at 19.

Federer is uncomfortable having his tennis reputation defined by Nadal. “I understand the point that [fans] think my career might go through him,” he says. “I think it goes through titles.” But both players understand the benefits of a U.S. Open final that includes them. Nadal serves a sales pitch to Americans who might yawn at a matchup with no Yanks. He cites Sampras-Agassi, the rivalry on which he was reared, which resembles his contrast with Federer. “I am not American, I’m Spanish, and I was following that because there are special moments,” he says, through an interpreter. “It doesn’t matter what their nationality is. Those special moments must be followed by people.” He and Federer might just create a few.

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Write to Sean Gregory at sean.gregory@time.com