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Nadal's play means Federer finally has a rival

Published July 10, 2006

WIMBLEDON, England - He is impossibly young. He is impressively built. He is a bouncer standing between Roger Federer and the door to history.

Yes, the fortnight has ended, but the war has just begun. Federer officially has a rival, and men's tennis has some relevance again.

For the record, Federer beat Rafael Nadal 6-0, 7-6 (7-5), 6-7 (2-7), 6-3 Sunday for his fourth consecutive Wimbledon title and his fourth championship in the past five Grand Slam tournaments.

But those are just details. The numbers that will be recorded and, eventually, recalled for dissection later.

Of greater significance is the way Nadal made you pause. The way he made you wonder, if only for a moment, if an upset was possible. The way he made Federer, for a change, wipe some sweat from his brow.

Nadal, winner of the past two French Opens, is all that has stood between Federer and six consecutive Grand Slam titles. Which basically means he's all that is standing between Federer and a History's Greatest Player coffee mug.

Federer needed this Wimbledon title. Needed it more than you might think for a guy ranked No. 1 in the world.

The French Open losses could be excused because Nadal is virtually unstoppable on clay. Wimbledon is different. The grass courts are where Federer made his name, and a loss here would have wounded him deeply.

"I'm very well aware of how important this match was for me," Federer said. "It was important for me to beat him for a change."

They have insisted for years that Federer's game was flawless, but now we know better. For all his artistry with a racket, for all the smoothness in his step, there was something the Swiss master lacked.

Specifically, a legitimate adversary.

Andy Roddick had tried out for the part, but he couldn't hit the high notes. Lleyton Hewitt, Mark Philippoussis and a cast of hundreds have also been found lacking over the past three years.

In his first seven trips to a Grand Slam final, Federer had faced six different players. None seemed worthy of the challenge. Not a single one was strong enough to stand in his way.

By the time Federer arrived on the scene, Pete Sampras was already leaving and Andre Agassi was beginning to fade. Federer's career was in danger of being played out in a vacuum. There was no Watson to his Nicklaus. No Frazier to his Ali. No Sonny to his Cher.

Then along comes the kid from Spain with all the muscles. Strong enough, perhaps, to prop up an entire sport.

It is what any sport needs. Just a hint of mystery. Just a bit of variety. Though there is a certain attraction to a team or an athlete who can dominate, it means far less if it cannot be measured against a worthy adversary.

You could hear it in the crowd at Centre Court on Sunday. They appreciate and respect Federer, but they were aching for Nadal. Much in the same way they have for Roddick in the past.

On his own, Federer is like a waltz. Graceful and perfectly synchronized. Paired with Nadal, he becomes punk rock. Loud and unpredictable.

Nadal has made a man out of Federer. Not in the macho sense, but in a human way. He has made us see that Federer is not completely without emotion.

There was an intensity to Federer's play early in Sunday's final. And there was pride in his grin at the end. In between, it seemed, there might have been a hint of concern in his eyes.

"(It) is important for me to play good in this final," Nadal said. "Because I know in the future ... I can win here. I can beat Roger, too."

From the side of the court, he watched Federer accepting prizes and praise in the postmatch ceremony. Nadal was quiet. He was respectful. And you got the sense he wanted to yank Federer's shorts over his fancy sport coat.

"He's winning easy, so that's tough for the other players, for everybody," Nadal said. "Now, he's the best.

"We're going to see in the future."

Ahh, this is what tennis needs. This is what we want. A player who looks like a boxer and talks like a wrestler.

Federer is 24, Nadal is 20. One in his prime, and the other on the way. This rivalry has the potential to be among the greatest ever.

Between them, Federer and Nadal have won the past six Grand Slam tournaments. Not since Bjorn Borg and John McEnroe kept trading turns as champions from 1979-81 have two players so dominated the biggest events.

They are, far and away, the best players on the tour. Everyone else seems to be playing for the semifinals. Federer did not drop a set on his way to the Wimbledon final. Nadal had won 80 consecutive games on serve before Sunday. They had to run into each other for the streaks to be broken.

In the end, Sunday's championship was not one for the ages. Nadal is too inexperienced on grass to have made it a thriller. He did not adjust quickly enough in the first set, and he never found the answer to Federer's serve.

What Nadal did, however, was serve notice. He is not just a clay-court specialist, and Federer had better not take him lightly.

Wimbledon got the final it was hoping for, and tennis got the match it needed. Nadal proved himself on grass and Federer responded under pressure.

It's all over now.

And it's just beginning.

[Last modified July 10, 2006, 06:14:24]

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