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Roger vs. Rafa, To Be Continued...

US Open 2008

Federer and NadalGetty ImagesRafael Nadal has moved just ahead of Roger Federer.

With Rafael Nadal displacing Roger Federer as the new World No. 1, what will be the 'new normal' on the ATP circuit? A prolonged Rafa reign? Roger reclaiming top spot? Multiple changes? One thing is for certain: The Federer-Nadal rivalry will continue as the most engrossing in world sports.

Roger Federer sits motionless on a nondescript chair, looking nowhere other than the gap between his feet, head bowed, elbows resting on his knees. In the normally-congested and often-noisy Cincinnati locker room, only low-level background noise from the nearby training room competes with the solemn silence. Just one other man is in the immediate vicinity... Rafael Nadal.

Often surrounded by members of his entourage, Nadal on this rare occasion is alone, sitting on a bench clutching two racquets moments before his 5 p.m. practice. There is just one image in his immediate field of vision – a forlorn Roger Federer.

Federer had moments earlier departed center court after tasting his first defeat against 6' 10" Croatian Ivo Karlovic, who has broken the Swiss just once in 99 service games in seven meetings. It was the first time Federer had ever lost a match without dropping serve, and more importantly, the Swiss knew that the loss effectively ended his remote hopes of retaining his four-and-a-half year reign as World No. 1 in the South African Airways ATP Rankings.

The moment lasted just 10 or 20 seconds, yet it was immediately timeless.

Federer, perhaps accepting for the first time that his historic reign at No. 1 was now in its last weeks, unlaced his shoes and headed for the shower, while the Spaniard headed from the locker room to the practice court, jogging as always to avoid being swamped by autograph seekers lining his pathway.

"I guess I'll analyze and assess my game after the US Open. For the moment it's just all a blur," Federer said after his loss to Karlovic.

Nadal can have that affect on you. Who would have thought that after going the first 3-1/2 months of the season without winning a title, just as Federer did, that within the following four months the Spaniard would surpass the Swiss as No. 1? And strange as it may now seem, twice during the past four months Nadal was within one match of slipping to No. 3, a fate he avoided by defeating Novak Djokovic in the semifinals of Masters Series Hamburg and Roland Garros to preserve his record three-year run at No. 2.

But during the same period Nadal also produced the most sizzling run of his young career, winning seven of eight tournaments he played, including the Roland Garros-Wimbledon double and three ATP Masters Series titles. His career-best 32-match winning streak – finally halted by Novak Djokovic in the Cincinnati semifinals – laid the groundwork for his rise to No. 1

"I'm very, very happy to be No. 1," Nadal said in Cincinnati. "Being No. 1 is like a present for a lot of work in the past."

After waiting more than three consecutive years at No. 2 behind Federer, Nadal would have to wait two more weeks to officially claim the No. 1 Ranking – fittingly, one day after he won the singles gold medal at the Beijing Olympics.

"Nowhere in my best dreams I can imagine something like what I did this year," Nadal said in Beijing. "I am playing an unbelievable season, no doubt."

In recent months much talk centered on whether Nadal would take No. 1 from Federer. After ending Federer's record 237 consecutive weeks at No. 1, Nadal looks likely to also break Federer's four-year stranglehold on the prized year-end No. 1 South African Airways ATP Ranking at the conclusion of Tennis Masters Cup Shanghai. If that happens, the next big question is whether Federer will ever reclaim the year-end No. 1 prize.

Consider this: In the 35-year history of the South African Airways ATP Rankings, only one player has ever recaptured the year-end No. 1 Ranking after losing it. That was Ivan Lendl, who held the year-end No.1 for three straight years from 1985-87, finished second behind Mats Wilander in 1988 and reclaimed year-end No. 1 in 1989.

Within the broader war for year-end honors, expect to see a series of skirmishes that could result in the No. 1 ranking swinging between Nadal and Federer throughout coming seasons. Tennis is blessed to have a rivalry that is arguably the most compelling in all of world sports, boasting different playing styles, personalities and temperaments.

As Federer said: "I think ours is particularly intriguing because we have such different characters and different styles, like what maybe Borg and McEnroe had in a way. But then they only played a handful of times almost and we've played 20 times and we have the feeling it's going to happen for another 20 times. That's why I think we're right in the prime of this rivalry. On top of that, he was able to beat me more often that I've beaten him even though I'm No. 1 for so long. I think all these things make it that much more intriguing. I think it's just poised to be one of the great rivalries."

There is good reason to believe that the ongoing battle for No. 1 will further elevate the Federer-Nadal rivalry, which already is one of the greatest in the history of the sport. And there is added interest with the continued rise of 21-year-old Serb Djokovic, who beat Federer in the Australian Open semifinals en route to his first Grand Slam title in January.

Far from being the beginning of the end of Federer, and the engrossing Federer-Nadal rivalry, six-time year-end World No. 1 Pete Sampras expects the change at the top will add further spice and says that both players will continue to shatter records.

"Nadal could win nine or 10 Frenches," Sampras recently told talk show host Charlie Rose. "He's still improving, while Roger couldn't go up any higher. Nadal's serving better, he's hitting his backhand better. I think he's just going to keep getting better and better. He's had the best year. He's clearly No. 1 in my opinion. And he's only 22."

With just two titles in 2008, Federer is enduring his leanest season since 2001. However, the Swiss has contested the past two Grand Slam finals and has reached the semifinal stage or better at the past 17 Grand Slams. Keep Federer's recent slide in perspective, Sampras advises. "Let's not forget he was a few points away from winning six straight Wimbledons."

Sampras also told Rose that Federer – who, unless he wins a fifth straight US Open, will go a season without winning a Grand Slam title for the first time in six years – will still break his own record of 14 majors. (Federer has 12.)

"Roger is going to have to do some work... he knows it," Sampras said. "[But] I still feel like he's going to break my record over the next few years. This is the first sort of adversity Roger's had in his career, but I really believe he will come through. Everyone is writing him off, saying Nadal is a lot better, but I know he's motivated. I know the times I lost my No. 1 ranking or the times I wasn't playing well, I fought that much harder. At the US Open this year Roger will be very motivated; he'll want to shut some people up."

Realistically, Federer must win the US Open to keep alive his hope of finishing year-end No. 1 ahead of Nadal. If Federer can win at Flushing Meadows for the fifth straight year, it will set the stage for a dramatic conclusion to the season during the indoor swing and then the circuit-ending Tennis Masters Cup Shanghai, where the Swiss chases a fifth title in six years.

So we eagerly anticipate a compelling end to a truly remarkable 2008 season. Although the outcome is uncertain, one thing is for sure: The Roger-Rafa rivalry and their battle for No. 1 will be one for the ages.

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