Federer, Nadal taking different paths to gold

Martin Rogers
Yahoo! Sports

BEIJING – The relationship Roger Federer began at the Sydney Olympics in 2000 is still going strong, but the other major alliance in his life was doomed to end in divorce even before he arrived here.

Federer met his girlfriend Mirka Vavrinec at a lunch table in the Olympic Village eight years ago, back when he was a carefree teenager on a rapid path to greatness. Now weighed down by his own fame and by expectations that demand nothing less than perfection, Federer can't even prevent the end of his 235-week marriage to the No. 1 ranking at the Beijing Games.

For that he can thank Rafael Nadal, the Spanish youngster who regularly asserts that the Swiss master is the best player ever yet refused to accept that Federer couldn't be bettered and chased down.

Nadal is what Federer once was – a free spirit who refuses to be satisfied with his own brilliance and constantly looks for more. Whereas Federer felt the level of attention in the village would be too oppressive and has shut himself away in a Beijing hotel room, Nadal talks smack, plays video games and poses for photos with his fellow Olympians.

The differing approach of the two dominant men in world tennis says much about their current mental state and is part of the reason behind the shift in power.

No. 1 can be a lonely place, and Federer must have felt like prey being lined up for a kill over the summer that Nadal emphatically conquered. How both men respond to their reversal of roles will be intriguing to watch.

Nadal is guaranteed to take over the top spot on August 18, the day after the Olympic final. However, the extra ranking points available in Beijing give Federer a potential escape clause. A gold medal and a sweep through the rest of the North American hardcourt season could allow him to reclaim the pole position earlier than expected.

Yet that will only happen if Federer can sort out his mental demons and rebuild his battered confidence. Time will tell, but his isolationist Olympic approach does not bode well.

Tennis, and the fame which arose from the greatness that spawned 12 Grand Slam titles, just isn't so much fun for him anymore. If any occasion could rekindle that passion, then surely the Olympics is it. But by refusing to embrace the full Summer Games experience, Federer is selling himself short.

"It is not possible for me to stay there (at the village)," he said. "I can't escape. The other athletes want pictures and everything. I don't mind it, but it's every day. It is not ideal preparation for trying to win a gold medal."

Compare that to Nadal, who claims he never once considered switching the comfortable yet basic athlete's accommodation for something more luxurious and private.

"I enjoy the experience," Nadal said. "It is a pleasure to see and spend time with athletes from all over the world.

"People recognize me, and if they ask me for a photo I just do the photo. It is no problem for me to do that. They are all athletes. I am excited to be here the same as them."

Federer has not turned into a prima donna, but his life has drifted increasingly closer to the celebrity set in recent years. Sitting in his players' box for the epic Wimbledon final, which he lost to Nadal in a memorable five-set thriller, were Gwen Stefani and her alt-rocker husband, Gavin Rossdale. Previous courtside guests have included Tiger Woods and Vogue editor Anna Wintour.

Nadal prefers to spend his time in tracksuits and sneakers and hangs around his family and fellow Spanish tennis players. More than once he has called himself a "simple boy," albeit one with an extraordinary talent.

The rivalry between the pair is a courteous and respectful one and the best in individual sport. But by trouncing Federer at the French Open and then invading the five-time Wimbledon champion's personal kingdom, Nadal has firmly seized the upper hand.

Federer's surrender of the No. 1 ranking has been a slow death. It was inevitable from the moment he lost at Wimbledon, yet a quirk in the scheduling allowed him to eke out another few weeks in charge.

The two men are destined to meet in future Grand Slam finals. But this week provides an opportunity for something unique.

"It is different here because it is only every four years, so you feel the pressure," Federer said after a comfortable 6-4, 6-2 first-round victory over Russia's Dmitry Tursunov. "It would mean as much to win the gold medal as a Grand Slam, and I couldn't ask any more than to have started like this."

Nadal struggled in his opener against Italy's Potito Starace, coming through for a 6-2, 3-6, 6-2 win. Starace summed up the battle for tennis dominance perfectly.

"Roger has been dominating everyone for four years and now Nadal is beating everyone," he said. "For me, there are two No. 1s."

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