February 1, 2009

#1 For Now -- Possibly Forever

Sports history is filled with great rivalries.

Yankees vs. Red Sox. Lakers vs. Spurs. Ohio State vs. Michigan. Duke vs. UNC.

If there were ever any question before today that Roger Federer vs. Rafael Nadal belong on that list, the Australian Open final served as final confirmation.

The pair had met eighteen times before Sunday, with Nadal holding an impressive 12-6 lead -- a stat few, if any, men will ever be able to claim. Since most of their careers they've been ranked #1 and #2, the majority of those matches have been in finals, seven at Grand Slams. But Roger has won three of their five meetings on hard courts, and they have never met in either the U.S. Open or down in Melbourne. And, as I love to mention, they've haven't once battled since Nadal became the top player in the sport last August.

Both men had a huge motivation to win today's match -- outside of the prize money and the ranking points. Rafa long ago declared he was the man to beat on clay -- he's won four straight titles at the French Open. After Wimbledon last year he proved he was also a threat on grass. A win in Australia would prove to his detractors -- and there are a few -- that he's an all-surface player.

Roger was also looking to make history. After a sparse 2008 he rallied through the draw at Flushing Meadows to win his thirteenth Grand Slam title -- one behind leader Pete Sampras. The championship trophy in Australia would make it that much easier to make 2009 the year he takes the lead.

I admit that every time the possibility comes up, I hold my breath a little and hope for a miracle to allow my Pete's record to stand a little longer -- but I had a feeling today would be the end of Pete's six-year solo reign.

Roger had played an amazing tournament, losing only two sets in the fourth round to Thomas Berdych, but had an easy road since then. Nadal had that epic match on Friday which he had one less day to recover from. And Roger clearly had the upper hand on hard courts -- he's won three titles Down Under and five straight U.S. Opens.

But I knew it wouldn't be an easy match.

The first set started with both players losing their serve. They traded off again a few games later. After fifty-eight minutes, one minute shorter than the entire women's final, Rafa and Roger had put only one set to bed, and Nadal took the early lead. Roger came back in full force in the second, breaking Rafa twice and winning the last four games in a row. Nadal won the third set in a tiebreak after fighting off what seemed like dozens of break points, and Roger the fourth, 6-3.

It wouldn't have been right if this match didn't go the distance -- four of their previous matches have required a fifth and deciding set and this one was just as crucial as all the others.

After nearly four hours of play, the last set was relatively quick. Rafa only needed 34 more minutes to win his sixth Grand Slam. Federer lost only his fifth major final of his career -- every one of those defeats, of course, have been at the hands of Nadal.

Up until now all the talk has been about when Federer was going to surpass Sampras for Grand Slam titles -- but maybe the focus needs to be shifted. Nadal, at twenty-two, has four more majors than Federer did at his age, and he's showing no signs of slowing down anytime soon. The kid doesn't get tired, and he doesn't let emotions haunt him. He's healthier than almost any other player on tour, and he proved he can domiante any surface. Now he's only one U.S. Open away from a career Grand Slam.

Sampras himself has said Roger might win eighteen or nineteen majors -- how many can Rafa earn before all is said and done? Twenty? Twenty-five? Margaret Smith-Court had twenty-four and is the all-time leader -- why can't he beat that?

Roger may get on top first, but I have no doubt that Rafa will catch up pretty quick.

And the rivalry -- while it lasts -- is gonna be a great one.

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