Finally, a rivalry

GRANT CONNELL -- Special to the Toronto Sun

, Last Updated: 12:06 PM ET

After too many years without a good rivalry in men's tennis, welcome to the ring -- the one-two punch of Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal. This is what the sport needed to regain its world stature.

What's been missing is the feeling tennis fans had when they saw the fiery John McEnroe get outraged after losing a point to Jimmy Connors or Bjorn Borg. Mac had a different anger on court when he played these men than any other player. Those were rivalries that made the sporting world take notice.

This year, tennis fans and those who don't follow the sport couldn't wait for the Swiss star and Spanish phenom to meet in both the French Open and Wimbledon final. Men's tennis has returned to the spotlight and the rest of the tour should be grateful.

It's not to say that we haven't had some great players on tour since the early 1980s. Pete Sampras and Andre Agassi dominated during the 1990s and early 2000s, and everyone appreciated what they brought to the court. But no matter how hard the tour and the media tried, the Sampras-Agassi rivalry never came to fruition. They were two elite players who took turns in the spotlight but never created the true drama that comes with being adversaries. When Andre was on the comeback trail, Sampras was winding down his career.

Tennis today is in the best state it has been in years. It's not that the rest of the current players on tour don't have what it takes to get to the level that Nadal and Federer have reached.

I believe we're in for a real treat in the near future. James Blake of the United States and Mario Ancic of Croatia are two young players who have the potential to make this summer very interesting. It's not a disappointing tournament if Roger and Rafa are not in the final, it's just that the non-tennis world takes more notice because of their ranking and on-court animosity.

Federer is calm, cool and collected, while Nadal bounces like a rabbit throughout the entire match. And if the finals of a tournament includes someone not from Switzerland or Spain, it becomes an upset, which all fans seem to enjoy.

We all know that it's common to have players on tour who specialize on a certain playing surface. There is no question that Nadal, at 20 years of age, is the king of clay. He has won 60 consecutive matches on the surface, including back-to-back wins at Roland Garros. He broke Guillermo Vilas' record of 53 straight matches.

Just when everyone tabbed Nadal as a clay-only player, he made a bold statement with a trip to the Wimbledon final. He defeated Andre Agassi in the third round at the All England Lawn Tennis and Croquet Club.

It was Agassi's final performance at Wimbledon before his retirement at the conclusion of the U.S. Open. Despite losing to Federer in four sets in the championship, Nadal made the sporting world take notice that it's not just about clay. He was 3-3 on grass courts before this year's Wimbledon. I think it's safe to say that Rafael has worked on his grass game.

As the U.S. Open season is upon us, it's interesting to note that Nadal holds a 2-1 record against the world's top player on hardcourt surface. But let's face it, Federer is the world's best player for a reason.

He is dominant, a text-book player whose quiet demeanor almost frightens his opponents. Not Nadal though, he has a 6-2 career record against Roger and is ready to take this rivalry to another level.

Grant Connell is a former No. 1 doubles player on the ATP Tour and currently the tournament director for the Rogers Cup. Watch for his column every Monday, leading up to the Aug. 5, Rogers Cup at the Rexall Centre.


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