Technically itdidn't count. So Rafael Nadal didn't extend his winning streak of 72consecutive matches on clay courts. Nor, for that matter, did he snap RogerFederer's streak of 48 straight victories on grass. But Nadal's 7--5, 4--6,7--6 triumph over Federer in a May 2 exhibition titled The Battle of Surfacesmay have provided a trailer of sorts to tennis's feature presentations thissummer.
Held on theSpanish island of Mallorca, where Nadal was raised and still lives, thisunsanctioned event pitted the ATP's top two players against each other on ahybrid court, half clay and half grass. Since Nadal and Federer met in thefinals of the French Open and Wimbledon in 2006--Nadal won the former, Federerthe latter--organizers figured the timing was ideal. (The French Open begins onMay 27; Wimbledon, June 25.) Adding to the intrigue, Nadal is ranked No. 2 buthas a 7--3 record against Federer, and his clay-court expertise is the biggestthreat to Federer's quest to win the Grand Slam. (Federer won the first majorof the year, the Australian Open, in January.) As the promotional materialbreathlessly put it, "We are in a position to reveal the mystery bymeasuring the forces of Federer and Nadal, the kings of grass and clay."Gimmicky? Absolutely. But apart from selling out the 7,000-seat Palma Arena,the event drew more interest than any tennis exhibition since Billie Jean Kingplayed Bobby Riggs in the Astrodome 34 years ago.
In a raucousatmosphere resembling a bullfight's, the players gave an honest accounting ofthemselves. They even switched footwear on each changeover to accommodate thedifferent surfaces. As many predicted, the player with clay underfoot usuallyhad the edge, as his shots and serves skidded off the grass--installed thenight before the match, after the original turf, imported from Bordeaux, becameinfested with worms--while the pace-blunting clay gave him ample time to setup.
Notwithstandingthe million euros ($1.3 million) they allegedly split, it's puzzling thatFederer and Nadal agreed to take part in this peculiarity. It was akin to, say,the Bears and the Colts playing a flag-football game a few nights before theSuper Bowl. The cynic might suggest that perhaps this was a way forFederer--who often seems unhinged by Nadal's fist-pumping intensity--to dialdown the volume of the rivalry. "I like the fact that the stadium islocated in Mallorca, Rafa's home," Federer said before the match. "Hehas been to Basel [Federer's hometown in Switzerland, site of an ATP tour stopeach October], and now I have the opportunity to play at his place."Perhaps Nadal saw a chance to make a statement before the heart of the GrandSlam season. Maybe they were simply seduced by the novelty of it all. Nadalstressed the "fun" of this "unique experience."
Regardless, it wastelling that Nadal was the player who conjured the winning shots in thethird-set tiebreaker. The predictive value of this "battle" is surelylimited, but it was yet another example of the Spaniard's unmatched competitiveresolve. The principals downplayed the outcome, but with the French Openlooming, neither will completely discount the match. The significance of thisexhibition goes, you might say, beyond the surface.
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Photograph by Bob Martin
Even in a match played for fun and a reported 50-50 split of the pot, Nadal(above) got the best of Federer.