Fast and furious: Playing against Rafa and Roger

Playing against Rafael Nadal or Roger Federer is a fast-paced,

physically exhausting and intimidating process that typically

leaves opponents worn into submission.

Nothing quite prepares the pros for playing Rafa and Roger.

Xavier Malisse, a 30-year-old Belgian who has known the Swiss

star since they were 12, lost in a businesslike fashion 6-3, 6-3,

6-1 on Friday.

”He’s extraordinary,” Malisse said. ”His style was like that

in the beginning, when he was 12. But when you see how it evolved –

it’s another world.”

They both turned pro in 1998, but Federer owns a record 16 Grand

Slam titles. Malisse is ranked 45th after a career high of

19th.

”When he hits the ball, there’s an incredible speed,” Malisse

said. ”You’re always on the defensive. You have to adapt to each

point, but you don’t have time,” said . ”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

ability to generally outthink and outmaneuver opponents by

anticipating their next move.

Federer often says he still enjoys tennis. 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 the sport. Federer said

he loves playing on center court.

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

has a staggering 755-177 career record. ”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’s won nine Grand Slam titles and logged a

477-102 record.

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

year-end rankings since 2004. At the Australian Open, Nadal is in

the top spot and trying to complete a ”Rafa Slam” by winning his

fourth straight major.

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 the biggest challenge of the

tournament so far, pushing him to five demanding sets. Simon is one

of only three players – along with Nadal and Andy Murray – who own

a winning record against Federer.

Simon said it felt like he was running nonstop for three hours,

while Federer was still speedy at the end.

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

can’t do anything in the moment,” Simon said. ”I feel like he’s

in control, he can do whatever he wants.”

Murray, who holds an 8-6 record against Federer, has never

beaten him at a Grand Slam. The Scot, who lost to Federer at the

2010 Australian Open final, studies both players.

”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

said.

Novak Djokovic is ranked No. 3, yet he considers the gap

enormous.

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

to challenge them in each event,” said Djokovic, the 2008

Australian Open champion. ”They are physically fit and mentally

very strong.”

Like others, Djokovic marvels at their nearly flawless games and

ability to improve.

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

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

especially Nadal.”

American qualifier Ryan Sweeting lost to Nadal in a clinical

straight-set match that didn’t take long, but left the 23-year-old

wiped out.

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

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

the game. 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.”