Wednesday, May 26, 2010

Nate On Sports: The Best Rivalry in Sports

I'm of the opinion that nothing can top a good sports rivalry. Rivalries just have a way of drawing interest to themselves, whether you're an avid follower of a sport or just a casual observer. I, for one, don't care much for hockey. But, if Alexander Ovechkin and the Washington Capitals are playing the Pittsburgh Penguins and Sidney Crosby, I'm going to pay attention.

As good as that rivalry is, however, it's not number one on my list. It's not North Carolina and Duke in basketball, which is similarly can't-miss television. It's not Michigan and Ohio State in football. And it's not even the Yanks and the Sox in baseball. Give up yet?

You have to look across the globe for your answer. And as of right now, the answer is in Paris, France, where the French Open is being played. Now, I know tennis isn't exactly the sexiest sport out there anymore, but there is one thing it does have: the best rivalry in sports today - Roger Federer versus Rafael Nadal.

Even if you don't follow tennis that closely, you know who these guys are. Roger Federer (aka, "The Man") has won a career Grand Slam, capturing the Australian Open, the French Open, Wimbledon, and the U.S. Open at least one time each. He's won 16 of these total, which is the most of all time. Perhaps his most remarkable feat is that he has reached the semifinals of these Grand Slam tournaments 23 times in a row... in other words, the last time he failed to make the semifinals was in 2004, at the aforementioned French Open.

Rafael Nadal, who also can make a case for being "The Man," is unquestionably the most electric and exciting player in men's tennis. Five years Federer's junior, Nadal has already won six Grand Slam titles, missing only the U.S. Open title from a career Grand Slam. He is undoubtedly the best player to ever play on clay surface, as witnessed by his four French Open titles. While he has not shown Federer's consistency, he has shown that when he's on top of his game, nobody is a match for him - including Federer.

It's important to distinguish the type of rivalry that the Federal-Nadal one is. It's not a hated rivalry at all - it's a rivalry based on competitiveness and each man's drive to be "The Man." Both players have an enormous amount of respect for one another, and on most occasions, both bring out the absolute best in each other (with the notable exception of the 2008 French Open final, where Nadal dominated Federer 6-1, 6-3, 6-0.) The 2008 Wimbledon final, where Nadal beat Federer 6-4, 6-4, 6-7, 6-7, 9-7 will go down in the annals of history as one of the greatest tennis matches ever played - if not the greatest - and is personally one of the top 3 greatest sporting events I have ever witnessed.

It's not just a rivalry because of the degree of competitiveness, however. Roger Federer, as it stands today, probably has a stronger case for the best men's tennis player ever, than any other male tennis player in history. He has the career Grand Slam, he owns 16 Grand Slam titles, and his semifinals streak is something that will never be touched. As impressive as this all is, these numbers would be evermore staggering if it had not been for the presence of Nadal. All things told, Federer has lost to Nadal in five Grand Slam finals, and one other time in a semifinal. While Nadal has been, by far, the best clay court player of this era, Federer has been, by far, the second-best clay court player of this era, which is a fact that gets lost with some. Nadal's very presence has probably cost Federer four more French Open titles, and a Wimbledon and Australian Open title each as well. Federer's inability to consistently beat Nadal, especially on clay, is the only thing keeping him from being the consensus "best ever."

Nadal, meanwhile, has controlled the match-ups with Federer, winning 14 to Fed's 7. After his 2009 Australian Open victory over Federer, Nadal had already won more Grand Slams than Federer had at the same age. While he was Federer's nemesis, Nadal, in fact, was also his own nemesis - his hard-hitting style of play wrecked havoc on his knees, which made the rest of 2009 a lost cause. It only appears now that he is showing signs of fully healing, although the clay surface in Paris is much easier on the knees than the hard courts of Melbourne or New York.

And once again, as the 2010 French Open gets underway, Federer and Nadal are on opposite sides of the draw. If both can navigate through their respective opponents, it could create one of the most hyped matches in the history of the sport. On one hand, Federer has the opportunity to cement himself as the best ever with a win over a healthy Nadal on clay. If Feds can pull this off, I don't see any scenario where he couldn't be the undisputed best ever - this is the only thing missing from his resume. On the other hand, Nadal has a chance to prove to the world, and himself, that he is truly back from the knee injury that took away over a year of his career. And furthermore, Nadal would once again erase any doubt that he, not Federer, is the alpha male of the sport at this time.

I hope it happens. As sports fans, we've been spoiled by this rivalry for about six years now. Federer, now 28, should be starting to enter the twilight of his career at any time now (although with Federer, you never know.) And Nadal, whose knees will probably prevent him from approaching Federer's record(s), will have legitimate injury concerns for as long as he plays. The bottom line is this: there's a good chance we won't get to see this match-up, on this stage, for much longer. Maybe we've already seen the last of it. I think I can speak for many when I say "I hope not," however.

Rivalries as great as this make you think like that.


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