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Clash of the Titans
by Steve Flink

As a one on one sport, tennis thrives on rivalries. They are required to capture the imagination of the fans, to stir the galleries, to bring out the absolute best in the players. They are an essential part of the game. Above all else, rivalries are the lifeblood of the sport.
Federer's record dropped to 0-5 on clay against his chief rival.

That is why it was so important that Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal--- the two greatest players in the game-confronted each other in the final of the Masters Series event in Monte Carlo on April 22. These two remarkable sportsmen had not faced each other in head to head competition since last November, when Federer stopped the left-handed Spaniard 6-4, 7-5 in the semifinals of the 2006 Tennis Masters Cup. That was a significant triumph for the Swiss maestro, who was victorious over Nadal for the second time in a row after suffering defeats in six of their first seven career confrontations.

When they stepped on court for their latest battle on the red clay in Monte Carlo, Federer was seeking his first triumph over his chief adversary on clay. Some in the cognoscenti believed that the timing might be right for Federer to topple Nadal this time around.

But Nadal had other ideas. He never lost his serve in a commanding 6-4, 6-4 dissection of Federer, raising his career record over the world No. 1 to 7-3. Despite displaying apprehension at the outset, Nadal steadily found his range off the ground and proceeded to break down not only Federer's backhand wing, but also his revered forehand. Nadal made only 19 unforced errors in the two sets, with Federer committing no fewer than 38. The Spaniard was typically solid and yet he was bold, taking risks off his forehand, trying to be as aggressive as possible, making certain that Federer would have a difficult time getting to the net.

The Nadal strategy was largely a success as he constantly kept Federer at bay, particularly in the second set. Federer had some crucial chances in the first set, including one break point opportunity for 2-0 and two more for 5-3. On two of the three break points, Federer injured himself flagrantly with forehand unforced errors. After Nadal turned the corner to take the first set, he never looked back. He got the early break for 2-1 in the second set and reached break point in all but one of Federer's service games. He could well have won more handily. I watched the match on the Tennis Channel and marveled at Nadal's early season clay court form.

For Nadal, this victory reaffirmed his clay court greatness. He did not concede a set all week in Monte Carlo, extending his astounding clay court winning streak to 67 matches in a row. But while Nadal surely got a great boost from starting his latest clay court campaign so impeccably, Federer did not distinguish himself in defeat. He had already come off back to back defeats against Guillermo Canas at Indian Wells and Miami. Following those setbacks, he talked about how important it was for him to win a clay court tournament this year after failing to do so in 2006.

He will have more chances to make good on that goal in the weeks ahead, at the Italian Open and perhaps in Hamburg. To his credit, Federer has not lost to anyone else but Nadal on clay since 2005. Once more in Monte Carlo, he handled the rest of the field with relative ease. He did not lose a set on his way to the final. But this latest clash with Nadal was a step in the wrong direction. By and large, particularly in the second set, he gave a desultory performance. His forehand, which had given him considerable problems in his losses to Canas, was surprisingly suspect, and Nadal had the good sense to exploit that vulnerability as much as possible.

Be that as it may, this match adds much spice to the Federer-Nadal rivalry. Too many players go out on court essentially beaten by Federer before even a single ball has been struck. They are understandably daunted by the man, in awe of his talent, in envy of his temperament. They have nothing at all to lose when they meet the ten-time Grand Slam tournament champion, but they compete as if the weight of the world is entirely on their shoulders. Not Nadal. He is not afraid of anyone.

This rivalry is good for both players and great for the game. A year ago, after losing a four set final to Nadal in Monte Carlo, Federer had two match points before losing an epic five set encounter to the lefty at the Italian Open. Then Nadal defeated Federer in a four set final at Roland Garros. The view here is that for Federer to collect his first French Open crown in June, he must find a way to beat Nadal if they meet again on the way to Paris. But after this bruising loss in Monte Carlo, Roger Federer has a tall task ahead of him. Federer has not overcome the unwavering Spaniard in five career clashes on clay. He is going to be exceedingly hard pressed to beat Rafael Nadal on a clay court in the near future.

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