BJORN Borg had Jimmy Connors’s measure. Connors’s response: “I will follow that son of a bitch to the ends of the Earth.” Rafael Nadal has Roger Federer’s measure. Federer is to Connors what Mother Theresa is to Jack The Ripper, and in none of his four languages would he describe the Spaniard, but make no mistake, Federer wants Nadal as badly as Connors wanted Borg.
Federer won the ATP’s Dubai event on Sunday with a 3-6 6-3 6-4 win over that Czech’sTomas Berdych. The 78th victory of Federer’s career moved him past renowned American John McEnroe on the all-time record for the most trophies in the pool room. Only the Czech-born Ivan Lendl (94) and Connors (109), are more highly decorated.
Federer has won an ATP event every year for 14 straight years. Yet when he lost to Australian Lleyton Hewitt in the final of the Brisbane International in January, it seemed he might never win again. He used to consume Hewitt with his double-shot espresso for breakfast. When Nadal steamrolled Federer in straight sets at the Australian Open to take their head-to-head record to an almost comical 23-10, there was an atmosphere of sad inevitability inside Rod Laver Arena. He might never beat Nadal again.
But Federer refuses to believe it. He refuses to concede he’s washed up. He’s playing great! But he’s yet to play great against Nadal. Knocking over that Serbian S.O.B. Novak Djokovic and Berdych in Dubai offers renewed hope but all he really wants is another crack at Nadal. He won’t have to wait long. They’re both in the draw at Indian Wells next week.
Doing his best Bill Lawry, Federer said: “It’s all happening. Beating Novak on the hard courts here in Dubai is tough. Clearly it’s not best of five, clearly not the finals of some whatever tournament, but this is a big step in the right direction. It gives me a lot of confidence. Physically, I’m doing well. We’ll have to see how I handle travelling all the way to Indian Wells.”
We’re guessing Federer won’t be cramped for leg room in cattle class. We’re guessing he won’t have some big fat bloke snoring in the seat next to him. Let’s assume his journey all the way to Indian Wells will be relatively comfortable. Federer will be the World No 8, down a spot, slip-sliding away according to the computer, when the rankings are released tomorrow. Nadal is entrenched where Federer wants to be: No 1. “We’re almost too nice to each other sometimes,” Federer told GQ Australia. “I don’t want to say today’s players are too soft, but it’s good when players go after each other a bit. I’m not sure how close we are as friends. I’ll be interested how much we’ll stay in touch once everything is said and done and we’re off the circuit. We’re not going to dinner, if you know what I mean. I don’t know how it was in Connors’s era.” It was on for young and old.
Federer has 17 majors. Nadal has 13. “Could Rafa eclipse my record? Yeah, absolutely,” Federer said. “But . . . I’m still playing.
All roads and business-class flights lead to Indian Wells. There’s an asterisk next to Federer’s merriment in Dubai. He beat everyone he could. But he didn’t beat that S.O.B Nadal.