Federer-Nadal rivalry takes new turn

Imagine a cartoon: Roger Federer standing on top of a mountain, or maybe floating a few inches above it, saying "This is the golden era of tennis." Meanwhile, a bunch of other players, including Rafael Nadal, hurt with crutches and bandages are in a pile at his feet.

You might have heard that Federer and Nadal — the greatest, nicest individual rivalry in sports — are having a tiff. Nadal complains that the tour has too many mandatory events, is too grueling, has almost no offseason and is beating up the players. Federer, as the president of the player council, doesn’t seem to notice.

"For him, it’s good to say nothing," Nadal said. "Everything positive. ‘It’s all well and good for me. I look like a gentleman,’ and the rest can burn themselves."

Nadal is right. Federer is oblivious. But this is a much bigger problem than two superstars bickering. The players are in serious need of a union. So many of them know it, but they just can’t seem to figure out how to get it done. At the US Open in September, Nadal, Andy Murray and Andy Roddick went in unity to tournament officials to complain about being forced to play on slippery, rained-on courts just to make TV networks happy.

"It’s the same old story," Nadal said. "All you think about is money."

That seemed to be the beginnings of a union. Now, Federer suddenly is an obstacle. And Nadal is example No. 1 of why the union is needed. So the rivalry takes on a different tone.

What makes Nadal an example? The thing is, at just 25, he is starting to get old. He can feel it. He can see it.

On the court at the Australian Open Wednesday, the year’s first major, he had a knee brace on his right leg. His shoulder was hurting. He was using a heavier racquet in an attempt to drive through serves and get points over with quicker.

Also, he isn’t running as fast as he used to.

The other day, his knee popped so loudly and painfully while sitting on a chair, that he had to have tests done, and considered withdrawing from the tournament. Instead, he did beat Tommy Haas, 6-4, 6-3, 6-4, to advance to the third round.

"I love the game and there’s a lot of things I’m grateful for," said Nadal, who is VP of the player council. "The game has allowed me to lead a fantastic lifestyle. But to finish your career with pain all over your body? Is that a positive? No.

"Maybe (Federer) has got a super body and he’ll finish his career like a rose. Neither myself, nor Murray, nor (Novak) Djokovic are going to finish our careers like a rose."

Federer has a superhuman body. He is 30 and has almost never been hurt. When he plays, he flies over the court. Now, he is still over everyone, unable to understand the nitty gritty going on beneath him.

If tennis is a ballet to Federer, then to Nadal it’s a slam dance.

Nadal is still great and can still improve, but his body is breaking down. It was inevitable with the way he plays. He storms the court like no has done before. He flails his arm into every shot to create incredible topspin, runs all-out and slides four feet, even on hard courts.

Nobody plays the game as violently as Nadal, but average humans play it closer to his way than to Federer’s ultra-smooth style. Djokovic has an odd serving motion, and his shoulder is never going to last.

Federer even uses an old racquet with old strings that flex and give. Nadal — and nearly everyone else — with the modern equipment, gets the shock of each shot sent directly into the wrist, through the elbow and the shoulder.

It’s impossible to know what’s happening behind closed doors, but if players are interpreting this right, Federer is not doing much, recognizing that the sport, in a bad world economy, is still landing sponsors. Most sports fans don’t realize that the tennis season doesn’t end after the US Open. It then goes on with mandatory tournaments into Asia.

Federer apparently wants to take time and not react hastily. He points out that lower-ranked players don’t want a shorter schedule, as it would cut down on their earnings potential. Maybe so, but if top players are going to have their careers cut short, that’s not going to do anyone any good.

Patience. Interesting. Andy Roddick was asked why the players don’t form a union. He said they had talked about it but wanted to give the tour’s new CEO a chance to do things right without having a fight.

That question was asked to Roddick at the Australian Open in 2010. Now, the tour has a new, new person in charge.

Nothing ever happens, other than loads of players getting hurt and complaining about the schedule.

"I thought we’re going in a good direction," Federer said. "I thought the game was healthy. We’re in a golden era right now. Everybody is happy, talking positive."

Huh? Who?

"I don’t know why Roger is not supporting the players," player Nikolay Davydenko said. "Because he don’t want … any problems. He’s (a) nice guy. He’s winning grand slams. He’s from Switzerland. He’s perfect."

True enough. And that’s the problem. Nadal’s human body is feeling it.