STEVE INSKEEP, host:
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.
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.