Fast and furious: Hitting with Rafa and Roger

Ever wonder what it’s like to play against Rafael Nadal or Roger


It’s a fast-paced, mentally draining, physically exhausting,

intimidating process that typically results in being worn down to

submission. The little yellow ball zooms forward, twisting in a

swish of speed and power, and the goal is to hit it back – again

and again and again.

Nothing quite prepares even the pros for playing Rafa and Roger.

Just ask their rivals.

Federer’s opponent Friday was 30-year-old Xavier Malisse, a

Belgian who has known the Swiss star since they were 12. They both

turned pro in 1998. Malisse never quite became a household name,

while Federer went on to win 16 Grand Slam titles and is commonly

called one of the greatest players of all time.

”He’s extraordinary,” Malisse said in an interview after

losing their third-round match, 6-3, 6-3, 6-1. Like most players

who lose to Federer, he was disappointed but reverential. ”His

style was like that in the beginning, when he was 12. But when you

see how it evolved – it’s another world.”

”When he hits the ball, there’s an incredible speed. You’re

always on the defensive. You have to adapt to each point but you

don’t have time,” said Malisse, who is ranked 45th from a career

high of No. 19. ”He’s a perfect player.”

The 29-year-old Federer exudes calm on the court and an

effortless grace, which belies the intense power of his shots and

his ability to usually outthink and outmaneuver opponents by

anticipating their next move.

Federer often says that after all these years he still enjoys

tennis, and his enjoyment is apparent on the court. He is not

tortured by the pressure of living up to his reputation. After

Friday’s match, he was asked what keeps him excited about tennis

and Federer said he loves playing on center courts around the


”It takes a lot of hard work to get there,” said Federer, who

has a staggering record of 755 wins during his career and 177

losses. ”When you’re there, you want to stay there.”

Nadal’s style is different. The 24-year-old Spaniard is

muscular, intense and phenomenally athletic. He relentlessly chases

down balls and pounds them back with viscous topspin. Since Nadal

turned pro in 2001, he has won 477 matches and lost 102. He owns

nine Grand Slam singles trophies.

Together, Federer and Nadal have monopolized the No. 1 and No. 2

year-end rankings since 2004. Nadal is currently in the top spot

and trying to complete a ”Rafa Slam” by winning his fourth Grand

Slam in a row. Federer is bidding to become the second man in

history to win five Australian Opens. A Federer-Nadal matchup in

Melbourne could only happen in the final.

Frenchman Gilles Simon gave Federer his biggest scare of the

tournament so far, pushing him to five demanding sets in the

previous round.

Simon has been ranked as high as No. 6. He is one of only three

men on the tour – beside Nadal and Andy Murray – with a winning

record against the Swiss great but he said Federer remains an

enigma to him.

Simon described the experience of playing against Federer as ”a

little bit strange.”

”You look at the ball, and you have the impression that you

can’t do anything in the moment,” he said, adding that he felt

like he was running nonstop for three hours, while Federer was

still speedy at the end. ”I feel like he’s in control, he can do

whatever he wants.”

No. 5 Andy Murray holds an 8-to-6 edge over Federer but has

never beaten him at a Grand Slam, including last year’s Australian

Open final. He makes it a point to study Federer and Nadal.

”If they’re on TV and you’re in the hotel, you’ll definitely

sit and watch some. You can learn a lot from those guys,” Murray


No. 3 Novak Djokovic is directly behind Rafa and Roger in the

rankings but considers the gap enormous.

”I’m in this small group of players behind them that is trying

to challenge them in each event,” Djokovic said earlier this week.

He has succeeded in beating Nadal 7 out of 23 times. He has beaten

Federer in 6 of their 19 matches.

”They are physically fit and mentally very strong,” said

Djokovic, the 2008 Australian Open champion who finished No. 3 last

year for the fourth year in a row.

Like others, Djokovic marveled at Federer’s and Nadal’s seeming

lack of weaknesses and their ability to keep getting better and


”This mental strength is I guess a big advantage over the other

opponents,” he said. ”They always play in full speed, especially


Nadal’s most recent victim was American qualifier Ryan Sweeting

on Thursday. Nadal’s quick, clinical straight-set win didn’t take

long but left the 23-year-old American wiped out.

”Mentally it was draining. It wore me physically,” Sweeting


”I’m running, running, and running just to get a point in the

game,” he said. ”With Rafa, he’s so fast and so strong that he

gets there and he gets the ball back deep and you have to start all

over. You have to win the point two or three times just in order to

get a 15-love.”

But he wouldn’t trade the experience for anything.

”I was very excited,” Sweeting said. ”It’s not every day you

get to go head-to-head against the No. 1 player in the world,

possibly one of the best to ever play the game.”