Federer and Nadal rival the very best

IT IS not yet in the class of Bjorn Borg and John McEnroe, but the rivalry between Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal is simmering nicely.

Federer won the latest epic battle when he lifted his fifth successive Wimbledon singles title on Sunday, just four weeks after Nadal had won his third consecutive French Open.

Federer is the king of grass, denying Nadal the game’s greatest prize. Nadal is the king of clay, depriving Federer of the only grand slam title he has not won.

As such both stand in the way of each other’s gateway to greatness.

It is a rivalry, however, which Federer welcomes. “I don’t mind it. I win my share, he wins his,” he said. “It’s a good rivalry, I think.

“We’ve been at the top for over 100 weeks together. It is maybe building up to one of the great rivalries.

“But we sometimes haven’t lived up to the expectations in the past in our matches in the majors especially. That was maybe a bit of a problem.

“But you can’t always play five-set thrillers. I’m happy it happened and that I left as the winner was perfect.”

The best news for tennis, however, is that Nadal is getting closer to Federer, perhaps closer on grass than Federer is getting to the Spaniard on clay.

It is that kind of edge which will fuel the rivalry between the 25-year-old world number one and his 21-year-old heir apparent.

Given health and fitness over the next few years it could blossom into a phenomenon on the scale of Muhammad Ali v Joe Frazier, Ayrton Senna v Alain Prost, Sebastian Coe v Steve Ovett.

Sport needs such contests.

Tennis has enjoyed its fair share in the past. Boris Becker and Stefan Edberg vied for Wimbledon domination in the late 1980s. Pete Sampras and Andre Agassi had a series of exciting duels in the 1990s.

And then there was the golden era of Jimmy Connors, McEnroe, Borg and Ivan Lendl in the 1970s and 1980s which coincided with the television boom and turned tennis into a front-line, personality-driven sport.

The encouraging thing for tennis is that as well as Federer and Nadal there are other young, hungry competitors eager for a piece of the action.

Players such as 20-year-old Serb, Novak Djokovic, who but for an injury and the punishing schedule due to Wimbledon’s inclement weather might have reached the final.

Others, too, such as losing semi-finalist Richard Gasquet, 21, and Britain’s Andy Murray who at 20 is in the world’s top 10 and on the cusp of the big breakthrough.

Suddenly, as the tour careers off to the American hard courts and the US Open next month, tennis appears in robust health. It has cause also to be proud of the man who has dominated the sport for the past five years and now stands alongside Borg and Rod Laver on 11 Grand Slams, just three away from the all-time record of Pete Sampras.

There is a chance Federer could attain that mark at Wimbledon next summer when, no doubt, Sampras, as Borg, would be invited to the Royal Box to give his seal of approval.

The great thing about Federer, however, is that the ambitions have not become an obsession.

He explained: “I haven’t won Paris, Davis Cup, the Olympic Games. There are many other tournaments I’d like to win again. But if I don’t win them all it’s okay too. I’m having a great run.

“I just want to enjoy tennis and not put myself under pressure all the time. If I don’t win, whatever, the Olympic Games, it does not mean I won’t be able to sleep the rest of my life. That’s not the way it is for me.

“I’m just happy with such a great run, especially at Wimbledon, the most important tournament of my life. I’m loving every moment of it.”

So, too, are tennis fans.

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