So, are you all ready for Roger versus Rafa XXII? It could happen within a week, if both men play to form at the Shanghai Masters 1000 event. Should the meeting occur, it will help advance the growing feeling that for once -- and hopefully for the future -- the fall isn't mostly about collecting fat guarantees in faraway places (for the champions) or padding the résumé in a mad year-end rush (for opportunistic or rankings-stressed backsliders).
Roger Federer hasn't lifted a racket in anger since he left the U.S. Open shell-shocked, after a semifinal loss to Novak Djokovic. Fair enough. Every prophet or visionary needs to stagger into the desert now and then to fast, punish himself and entertain visions of a future more pleasant than the recent past. Federer allowed a few days ago that he's been working his tail off, preparing for a season-ending sprint that has his calendar booked right up to the Barclay's ATP World Tour Finals (in London, mid-November).
Rafael Nadal, by contrast, has done something unusual. He's been present and accounted for in this period right after the U.S. Open. And his Asian swing has been his most successful yet, producing a semifinal in Thailand and a win in Tokyo. He's also surpassed the semifinal (Madrid) and quarterfinal (Paris) he posted in an injury-plagued 2009 season.
I went back to check the fall head-to-head between Federer and Nadal and found only two matches -- both of them were in the ATP Tour finals, so you can't entirely call them part of the fall schedule. Even the most indifferent of autumnal warriors doesn't have the gall to take a pass on the season-ending championships, which is theoretically the most significant event after the four Grand Slams.
The good news for Federer is he crushed Nadal in both encounters. The bad news for Federer is that Nadal is a different player in every regard than he was then. In the 2006 Shanghai semifinals, Rafa was chased out by Roger, 6-4, 7-5. The following year, once again in the semis, Federer whacked his emerging rival, 6-4, 6-1. Nadal has played just one other time in the year-end championships, last year in his rehab tour (he didn't survive the round-robin stage).
If these guys didn't get along so well and they didn't have such disdain for trash-talk and bulletin-board warfare, Rafa could easily rationalize his 2010 ambitions as "payback." Instead, his goal is merely to check off another box on the must-do list of greatness. Either way, if I were Roger Federer I'd be afraid, very afraid. Maybe that's the difference between Federer and me.
Presently, Federer is No. 3. He's a cool customer, and since he already lost his shirt at the high stakes tables at Roland Garros, Wimbledon and the U.S. Open, he might as well push all his remaining chips onto the red (for Switzerland) and attempt to deny Nadal's final conquest.
These two could meet as many as three times before the end of the year (Shanghai, Paris, London), and you have to give Federer homefield advantage on the indoor hard courts.
Whoever imagined that the fall tour could seem so meaningful?