French Open Fans Hope For Federer-Nadal Final

In Paris, a new chapter in one of sport's greatest rivalries begins this weekend at the French Open. Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal have switched positions at the top of men's tennis. The transition from Federer, the former No. 1, to Nadal, the current top dog, has featured epic matches and displays of raw emotion.

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And let's move now from the struggle over economic survival to a struggle for the top in tennis. In Paris, a new chapter in one of sports' greatest rivalries begins this weekend at the French Open. Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal have switched positions at the top of men's tennis over the past year, and now fans are wondering what next.

NPR's Tom Goldman reports.

TOM GOLDMAN: The questions about Federer versus Nadal hang in the air like a towering lob shot, and most of them, really, are for Federer. Can he reclaim the top spot? How can he do it? Does he want to do it? At the very least, can he beat his young rival, which he hasn't done since 2007? Sorry, hadn't until last Sunday.

(Soundbite of tennis match)

Unidentified Man #1: He's done it.

GOLDMAN: Last weekend in Madrid, Federer was back on top. He beat Nadal 6-4, 6-4 in the final of a tournament on clay courts, Nadal's best surface.

(Soundbite of dial tone)

Ms. MARTINA NAVRATILOVA (Former Tennis Champion): Hello?

GOLDMAN: Hi, is this Martina?

Ms. NAVRATILOVA: Yeah.

GOLDMAN: I called Martina Navratilova, one of the greatest tennis players ever, to find out how significant it was that Federer won that match.

Ms. NAVRATILOVA: Well, it was huge. He had to stop the rot, so to speak, and he did it in the nick of time.

GOLDMAN: Actually, the Madrid question was a bonus. The real reason I called was to ask her about rivalries. She knows because she was part of one of the great ones. In the 1970s and '80s, Navratilova and Chris Evert achieved that hallowed one-name status - Chris and Martina - thrilling the fans as they pushed each other higher and higher.

Ms. NAVRATILOVA: Chris was number one and I'm like, I want to get there. And that's when I started really training. I got the coach, I started working out hard physically, and I became better. And then I was drilling Chris. I beat her like 13 times in a row, and then she knew she had to do something if she wanted to beat me. She made herself stronger and fitter, you know, had a full-time coach and she did beat me a few times again. But yeah, we made each other better.

GOLDMAN: She sees similarities with Federer and Nadal. Starting in 2004, Federer was ranked number one in the world for four and a half years. Navratilova, now a TV correspondent for the Tennis Channel, says during that reign, Nadal went out and made himself a lot better.

Ms. NAVRATILOVA: He's slicing his backhand, before it was sort of a sitting duck. Now, it's penetrating. He can use it as an approach. He can even serve a volley. I mean he's really improved his game to become a great all-around player.

GOLDMAN: And Federer's response?

Mr. ROGER FEDERER (Tennis Champion): God, it's killing me.

GOLDMAN: He cried. It was earlier this year and Nadal had just beaten Federer in finals of the Australian Open, on the heels of beating Federer in last year's Wimbledon final and the French Open final. Federer obviously had had enough of the new order and he broke down. But since then, he seems to have taken a cue from Don Corleone.

(Soundbite of movie, "The Godfather")

Mr. AL MARTINO (Actor): (As Johnny Fontane) Oh Godfather, I don't know what to do. I don't know what to do.

Mr. MARLON BRANDO (Actor): (As Don Corleone) You can act like a man. What's the matter with you?

GOLDMAN: Indeed, Federer appears to have grabbed his own lapels, slapped himself in the face, and gotten on with the business of answering Nadal's challenge. There was a hint of that attitude shift last month.

Unidentified Man #2: And that's the first time I've ever seen Federer do something like that.

GOLDMAN: On his way to losing a match at a tournament in Miami, Federer destroyed his racket, smashing it on the court.

Mr. DARREN CAHILL (Professional Tennis Coach): To me it shows that he really wants it and he wants it badly and he's not happy where his game is at the moment.

GOLDMAN: Darren Cahill is a former world-ranked player and a successful tennis coach. He almost took a job as Federer's new coach this year. Cahill says the way Federer beat Nadal last week in Madrid shows that Federer is on the move, channeling his frustrations into tactics specifically tailored for Nadal - a more aggressive backhand, shorter rallies, a powerful forehand with no spin.

Mr. CAHILL: Because it shows that all the work that he's been doing in practice, he's now attempting to bring it onto the court in a match situation, and that can only be good for Roger.

GOLDMAN: Cahill and all the tennis watchers gathered in Paris this week agree it's a long way from success in Madrid to winning the French Open. Nadal is freakishly good on the clay at Roland Garros. He's never lost a match there, and he's won the last four titles. Even if Nadal makes it five straight, the tears have dried and his rival is pushing back, which makes it a rivalry that could get even better.

Tom Goldman, NPR News.

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Roger Federer: A Champion Faces A Challenge

The most painful thing for a champion is to realize that someone else has passed you by.

The most difficult thing for a champion is to try to change your game. After all, you became the best playing this way. Change what works? No, the hubris of having become the best almost demands that you stay the course. Or you quit.

And so we have ... Roger Federer.

It was hardly but a year or so ago when the only question was whether he was the greatest tennis player of all time. And there was no argument whatsoever that his game was the loveliest, ever. But now — now it seems that he might not even be the best of his own era.

How quickly it has happened. How bizarre. Federer is, after all, still ranked second in the world. It was only this past September that he won his 13th Grand Slam tournament. He's been in 14 of the last 15 major finals. That's unworldly. No, he's not a tragic figure. Away from the court, he appears level, attractive — and happy — a newlywed, with a baby on the way. He's rich and healthy. Even, it seems, rather quite a normal human being.

And yet, now he is demonized. Federer could not beat Rafael Nadal on clay in the French. Then, at Wimbledon last summer, Nadal beat Federer on grass. And at the Australian this winter, Nadal overpowered him on hard court. And suddenly, Federer didn't own a court anymore, anywhere. Who had ever seen a champion lose his world so visibly, so sorrowfully, as he did in Melbourne. The tears flowed, as Nadal tried to console him. "God, it's killing me," Federer moaned, turning away from the microphone.

Looking back, it's almost eerily the same as what happened to Bjorn Borg. Borg dominated the game as much in the late 1970s as Federer did these past few years. Only, just as Federer cannot win the French on clay, Borg could not win the U.S. on hard court.

And when John McEnroe took Centre Court at Wimbledon away from Borg and then beat him once again in New York, Borg had to walk away from the game, only 26 years old. He was still great, but someone had solved him. And, well, that was killing him.

Everybody has advice for Federer. Get a coach, Roger. Use a larger racket. Whatever. Change. Do something new, Roger. Do something different. But maybe it's hardest for him to adjust because he knows what everyone tells him, that he is the most beautiful tennis player who ever lived.

And then, Sunday, in Madrid, in the last tuneup for the French Open, Federer beat Nadal. On clay, straight sets. Now granted, Nadal's right knee is injured, and he was worn down from a grueling semifinal. Is it possible, though, that this one victory in one minor tournament can restore Federer's confidence?

Power, you see, rules almost every sport today. It is all that is stylish. Nadal is power. Beauty is now but a bagatelle. How do you get prettier when you are already the fairest of them all, and that doesn't anymore seem to be enough?

Commentator Frank Deford weighs in from member station WSHU in Fairfield, Conn.

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