What can we expect from edition twenty-one of the Federer-Nadal rivalry?
Tennis fans everywhere are staring - that jaws agape covetous stare - at the ATP Rome draw the same way they typically stare at posters of pinup girls and/or dreamy shirtless hunks gallivanting on the white sandy beaches of tropical resorts.
It's been a long, long time.
Absence of installment twenty-one of the storied and epic Federer-Nadal rivalry has certainly made the heart grow fonder. Not that we need to miss this rivalry to enjoy it. Still, it has kept us waiting. And Waiting. And watching re-runs of Rome 2006, Wimbledon 2008, Miami 2005, Wimbledon 2007, and the like. And waiting some more.
It was mid-May of 2009 when these two living tennis legends last met at the Magic Box in Madrid. Little did we know then the events that would transpire immediately thereafter. Now it all seems like ancient history, but eleven short months ago it was agonizingly real for Federer, and perhaps a little too good to be true for Nadal.
Before that match in Madrid, Federer, flummoxed repeatedly by the hard charging Spaniard, had never appeared more crestfallen in our eyes. The Swiss Maestro had endured five straight losses at the hands of the majestic Rafa. It wasn't so much the consecutive losses as it was the sheer magnitude of the losses: Three Grand-Slam finals on three surfaces, and two Masters finals, all ended in bitter disappointment for Federer.
Nadal, meanwhile, had never seemed more invincible. Not only was he a red brick-chewing phenom who played the clay as if his mother's womb was made of the stuff, but he was also blossoming as an all-court player, with the deft footwork, stunning touch volleys, and impossibly angled ground strokes to prove it.
Federer and Nadal, as hard as it was to stomach for us who would have been happy if time had forever stopped during one of their epic battles, appeared to be two ships passing in the night - one destined for mothballs and the other destined for the new land.
Then the rivalry gave us a surprise. In episode twenty, a fatigued Nadal was upended by Federer in Madrid. In that affair, an opportunistic Federer, who had been unable to cash in on so many of his golden chances against the Spaniard in previous matches, took advantage of his only two break points of the match (while saving the four that he faced) to win in straight sets.
What did it mean, we wondered? How were we to interpret the relatively lacklustre play of Nadal? Was Federer finally done being the world's second best player?
Many felt that Novak Djokovic, who did everything but vanquish Nadal in their semifinal match on the previous day, deserved as much credit as Federer did for the win. Others felt that in winning, Federer had finally tossed the 1,000 kilo monkey from his back.
What we really witnessed at the Magic Box in Madrid was more than just a match. Those with the capacity to see things in their true perspective knew that this wouldn't be the last time we questioned the futures of both men. They knew that this was just one of what was certain to be many twists and turns and momentum changes in the inner psychology of the rivalry.
What sprang forth from the ashes of so many Federer defeats at the hands of Nadal were perhaps the finest achievements of a player who continues to capture our imagination in ways we did not foresee. Nadal gave Federer lemons, and in the end Federer made lemonade. Even with Nadal on the sidelines rehabbing, Federer was essentially reacting to what had occurred between them. For Federer, clearly all the challenges that Nadal had forced him to face made the rest of the top ten seem much more manageable. First it was the French Open, and the career Grand-Slam. Then it was No. 15 at Wimbledon, then sweet 16 in Australia, the cherry on top.
Federer detractors (I myself cannot find a way to detract from either, but many have chosen sides) are keen to point out that Rafa was not capable of putting up a major resistance while Roger was busy rewriting tennis history last summer. But the beauty of Federer - and this is something we never fully realized until last year - is that his artistic approach to the game and his cerebral methodology in terms of planning for the grand marches always leaves him in position (injury free and well-rested) to win a Grand-Slam when the days of reckoning draw near.
So, in a sense, the rivalry between Federer and Nadal has taken on a new life since that Federer victory in Madrid last May. They haven't played each other, but they have continued on their epic journeys, one ship heading into dry dock for essential repairs, and the other ship changing course and moving full steam ahead into uncharted waters of ethereal greatness.
Over the last eleven months the rivalry has lived in the hearts of tennis fans, and the separate and singular exploits of each participant will now do their part in contributing to the next essential chapter of a book that is far from being closed.
Even when they don't play for eleven months Federer and Nadal are acting and reacting to each other in a symbiotic fashion - neither man would be as grand in our eyes if it weren't for the other, and that very fact is what makes us drool at the idea of a Rome semifinal between the two.
Nadal's return to form last week in Monte Carlo has the tennis world once again chattering about the religious experience that is his definitive brand of clay court tennis. There is a certain mystery surrounding him for the first time in a year. While it's easy to assign meaning to symbolic victories, a victory over Federer would no doubt add more fuel to Nadal's fire as he prepares to attempt to win the Roland Garros title back from his rival. What would it do for his psyche? And conversely, how would a loss affect his core of belief?
Meanwhile, Federer has struggled this spring, with early losses in Indian Wells and Miami. The world's No. 1 has been worry free for quite some time now, but a loss to Nadal might serve to bring some of the old demons back. He's been able to brush off losses to Berdych and Baghdatis, but how could he deflect a loss against Nadal? If there is one player on earth with the ability to truly get inside Roger's head, it is Nadal. Federer would like, no doubt, to prove to the world otherwise - not only can Rafa not get into his head, but he can't beat him regularly either - but he may have to go about proving it on the red clay.
If there is one thing and one thing only that Federer might want to prove to the world before he pulls his ship into harbour for the last time, it might be that Nadal does not have his number.
We all know that he did have Roger's number prior to their last meeting in Madrid, but what we don't know, well, that is what makes their next meeting so damn intriguing.