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Rafael Nadal moves relentlessly toward dethroning tennis’s reigning king

This week will tell whether Roger Federer, the Fred Astaire of tennis, can regain his footing after losing the No. 1 ranking to the hustling Spaniard, or whether a once-in-a-generation shift is under way.

By Correspondent / September 4, 2008

Rafael Nadal, the world's No. 1 ranked player, reacts to a point in a match at the US Open.

Kevin Lamarque/Reuters

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New York

As rivals, they form a perfect tennis tableau: There’s the great Roger Federer, for 4-1/2 years touted as, inevitably, the greatest ever, he of the elegant V-neck sweaters, Rolex watches, and classic, near-perfectly graceful game.

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But here’s Rafael Nadal, who spent a record 160 weeks as the second-best player, his swarthy, spider-veined biceps flailing about his sleeveless T’s and knee-length koulats, his mane of sweaty hair whipping over every grunt-propelled forehand as he pursued the Swiss genius. In July, finally, after a sodden five-set epic match in Wimbledon’s gloaming, Rafa all but ended Roger’s record reign as the No. 1 player in men’s tennis.

And while fans are clamoring for a third straight Grand Slam final featuring these two here at the US Open, the tennis world has been buzzing the last two months about the rise of Nadal, who also crushed Federer at this year’s French Open and won the gold medal in Beijing.

See, three months ago, Federer was tennis’s version of Tiger Woods, Wayne Gretzky, or Michael Jordan. Now, some wonder whether he can handle a year of such devastating defeats, when history was just within his grasp. Suddenly, there’s a story line.

“That Wimbledon final either brought fans out of dormancy or made new fans for the game,” says long-time tennis analyst Bud Collins. “I know I hear people talking about it, who first saw it on television, and I think it enlivened the sport tremendously, especially here at the US Open, where everyone wants to see them thrown together again. When you’re 4-1/2 years on top of the world, everybody’s looking for you to fall off. And now he’s fallen off, and it makes for great drama.”

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It’s a drama that many feel has been lacking in the men’s game for the past decade, especially since the golden era of the 1970s and early 1980s, when tennis was almost as popular as baseball and football. John McEnroe and Jimmy Connors, who despised each other, threw regular tantrums on the court; Björn Borg dominated Wimbledon and Roland Garros; and even tennis chic defined a certain sense of style at roller rinks and discos.

Many compare this year’s Wimbledon final with the era-defining finals back then. In 1980, Borg won his fifth straight Wimbledon title, defeating first-time finalist McEnroe in an epic match long considered the greatest ever played – until this year’s. In 1981, McEnroe finally defeated Borg, ending both his record streak and dominance. After that defeat, Borg never won a Wimbledon title again, and McEnroe began his own run as the No. 1 player in the world.

Of course, unlike McEnroe, Nadal had already won four straight French Open titles, including three straight over Federer. But there have been other Spanish clay-court masters – a surface that has stymied greats like Connors, McEnroe, Becker, and Sampras, none of whom could ever win there – and Rafa was simply the best of them. And while he had pressed Federer in a thrilling five-set final at Wimbledon in 2007, most tennis observers believed Federer would continue to add to his 12 Grand Slam trophies on surfaces other than clay and win his sixth straight.

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