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Federer and Nadal Reach for Tennis Greatness


The second round of the French Open tennis tournament is today in Paris. Roger Federer is going for his fourth straight Grand Slam championship. His archrival, Rafael Nadal, aims to extend his 54-match winning streak on clay courts; that's a record that he set earlier this week.

Commentator Frank Deford is watching that rivalry.

Mr. FRANK DEFORD (Contributor, Sports Illustrated; Reporter, WSHU, Fairfield, Connecticut): For the sake of posterity, probably the best thing that ever happened to Muhammad Ali was getting beaten by Joe Frazier. Jack Nicklaus is all the more remembered that he moved to the top over the beloved Arnold Palmer. The records of Chris Evert and Martina Navratilova suffered that they had to deal with one another, but, in fact, they're both accorded all the more acclaim because they had to deal with one another.

You see, in a sense, any great champion almost requires a noble challenger to certify preeminence. Otherwise, in a way, how could we ever really know how big his heart? How high she could lift her game?

As fantastic as Tiger Woods is, his punitive challengers, the likes first of Duval, then Singh, and Els and Goosen are, themselves, not the stuff of majesty. If Phil Mickelson really has moved up a notch - if his game and his mind have matured enough to raise him near Woods' level - then perhaps starting with the U.S. Open in a couple of weeks, we will be able to assess the depth and splendor of Woods in ways we never could when we were only blinded by his own brilliance.

It is tennis, though, where the potential for, quite possibly, the greatest men's rivalry in the sport's history suddenly looms. As the French Open moves into the second round today, all anybody anticipates is a final between Roger Federer and Rafael Nidal. It is not just number one versus number two - it is Federer, the polite, lithe, rather restrained, right-handed Swiss versus the animated Nadal, the ebullient, muscular left-hander from Mallorca, who favors a colorful bandana around his head and clam-digger pants.

Not only that, but Federer has come to be ordained as potentially the greatest tennis player ever. Simply that. Beautiful of stroke, wise with strategy, brave in battle. So high did Federer's star rise as he won his seventh Grand Slam title this winter in Australia, that even the xenophobic American sports public was forced to accept him.

ESPN dubbed Federer with the ultimate symbol of American sports knighthood: the opportunity to star in an ESPN house commercial. A foreigner acknowledged on ESPN? The bandwagon was now standing room only.

Only, suddenly, on this glide path to easier mortality, there developed one little inconvenience. Namely - Roger Federer keeps getting beaten by Rafael Nadal.

Six times they've met. Five times, the brash young Spaniard has won, and not just on clay, Nadal's home surface. He's beaten Federer two out of the three times they've played on hard courts. Nadal is obviously getting into Federer's otherwise uncluttered head.

Two weeks ago, in their last meeting in Rome, Federer screamed out, peeved, protesting that Nadal's uncle was illegally coaching him from the stands. Then the imperturbable Swiss master choked egregiously when he blew two match points. Maybe the rather startling fact is that, yes, we're watching the greatest tennis player ever right now. Only, maybe it's not Roger Federer.

Ah! But what if Federer beats Nadal and wins the French on clay on his worst surface, defeating the defending champion? Then, he's halfway to a Grand Slam, and he's achieved it by vanquishing the grand pretender on his own stage. That is not just victory; it is that which turns mere champions into legends.

INSKEEP: The comments of Frank Deford. I'm going to get him in a rivalry with John Feinstein one of these days. His latest book, The Old Ball Game, is out in paperback, and Frank joins us each Wednesday from member station WSHU in Fairfield, Connecticut. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Frank Deford
Frank Deford died on Sunday, May 28, at his home in Florida. Remembrances of Frank's life and work can be found in All Things Considered, Morning Edition, and on NPR.org.