Rafa looks to challenge Roger's reign

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Philadelphia, PA (Sports Network) - Just when we thought that Roger Federer would reign over men's tennis for the next few, if not several, years, along comes Rafael Nadal to throw a wrench into the plan.

This past weekend, the 19-year-old Nadal derailed the Federer Express for the third time in four career meetings, as he stunned the super Swiss 2-6, 6-4, 6-4 in a blockbuster final at the $1 million Dubai Tennis Championships. The gritty Nadal was two games away from losing on Saturday before breaking Federer's serve in the ninth game of the second set, then holding to level the match.

And at 4-4 in the second set, Nadal broke again one final time, then held to secure the Dubai crown.

"This victory is very special for me," Nadal said. "I couldn't imagine this when I came here. I am very happy, especially after having been away from the court for three months. It's unbelievable and unforgettable for me."

Federer headed into the final with a remarkable Open Era-record 56-match winning streak on hardcourts, not to mention a 19-match winning streak at the Dubai Tennis Stadium, where he was the three-time defending champion, and a perfect 16-0 record so far this season.

Rafael Nadal
The hard-hitting Nadal has won his last 10 finals.
Federer had also won 29 matches in a row in the Middle East and had won 22 straight hardcourt finals, with the last such loss coming against the legendary Andre Agassi in Miami four years ago.

But all those amazing Federer streaks are no more, as the swashbuckling world No. 2 Nadal notched his second straight victory over the 24-year-old world No. 1 star, including a four-set triumph in last year's French Open semis. In their two other career meetings, Nadal beat the Fed in a third-round bout in Miami in 2004, while the Swiss avenged that loss with a come-from-behind victory in the finale in Miami last year. In that bout, Federer fell behind two-sets-to-love before charging back like the supreme tennis champion that he is.

Not only has Nadal won 3-of-4 against Federer, but two of the wins are on hardcourts, where the Swiss is supposed to excel. Nadal is already considered the top clay-court player in the world, as evidenced by his French Open title last year.

Don't look now, but Rafa seems to be matching the Fed stroke-for-stroke, and then some, over the past year and change. Yes, Federer captured more majors than Nadal in 2005 (2-1), but the excitable Spaniard matched the sublime Swiss with 11 ATP titles last year, and both players tallied four Masters Series shields apiece in '05.

In Dubai, Nadal was appearing in only his second tournament of 2006, as he missed the end of last year and the beginning of this one while recovering from a left foot injury, which sidelined him in October. He finally returned to action in Marseille last month, but the rusty star ultimately lost to French crowd favorite Arnaud Clement in three sets in the semis of the Open 13 event. Clement, by the way, went on to win that tournament.

But with the victory over Federer, Nadal improved to 7-1 this year, corralled the 13th title of his very young career and proved that he, unlike just about every other player on the ATP, is not afraid of the silky-smooth Swiss. After winning another Open Era-record 24 straight finals, Federer has now dropped two of his last four title tilts, with the other one coming against David Nalbandian at the Tennis Masters Cup in Shanghai in November. Nalbandian, like Nadal, also has a winning record against the Fed (6-4).

You get the feeling that the lefthanded Nadal looks forward to playing Federer, just maybe not yet on grass, where the athletic Swiss is putting together a Pete Sampras/Bjorn Borg-like run at Wimbledon.

Nadal is now 13-2 in his career finals, including wins in his last 10. His 13 titles tie him with Swedish great Mats Wilander for second place among teen titles winners, as he trails only Borg's record of 16. Nadal won't turn 20 until June 3.

By the way, the iconic Borg was on hand to watch the Federer-Nadal tussle in Dubai.

FYI, the seven-time Grand Slam champion Federer is still an incredible 113-5 since losing to Czech Tomas Berdych at the Summer Games in Athens in 2004.

Right now, you'd probably have to consider Nadal as the favorite at the French and Federer as the favorite at Wimby, but who will get the nod at the U.S. Open? Nadal is starting to prove that he's a force to be reckoned with an all surfaces, with the exception of grass, for the time being.

It's hard to say whether or not Nadal will keep up with Federer, but what I do know is that the Raging Bull is still only a teenager and he's already beating the mighty Fed in what could be the Swiss' prime.

Another thing I know is that Federer-Nadal is shaping up to be the top rivalry in the game, a game in desperate need of rivalries, and not one-sided ones at that (see Federer-Roddick).

Nadal appears to have the weapons to tangle with the elegant Swiss, and who else can say that right now?

Ace or double fault? Send your comments to Scott Riley at sriley@sportsnetwork.com.
Scott Riley
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