Nadal-Federer rivalry could put spark in Olympic tennis

BEIJING -- The little girls dig Rafael Nadal in China. They scream his name in the rafters, in between fanning themselves, chanting "Na-dal, Na-dal, Go! Go! Go!" The Spaniard does not take the swooning for granted, especially this week. Tennis isn't exactly the hot ticket at the Olympics.

A few blocks removed from the drama and raw energy at the National Aquatics Center, where Michael Phelps & Co. were going for gold, Nadal and a handful of the world's top tennis players gathered at center court to half-empty crowds and warm Coke Zeros. Yes, it was the first round, and sprinkles loomed over another gray, humid day in Beijing. Nadal was so uncomfortable on Monday that he said he changed his shirt every 10 minutes.

By late in the afternoon, Roger Federer found himself trying to defend why the stars of the game would open themselves up to this, playing for no money against many of the same old faces they see throughout the year.

"In some ways, it's such a nice change to the regular tour we play in," Federer said. "I guess when I speak to some players now, who didn't play in the Olympics in 1996 and 2000, I know some of them have regrets.

"I would never want to miss an Olympic Games, ever again, if I would have a chance to compete in them."

Federer and Nadal have a unique opportunity this week to help the Olympic cause. If the sport's two most dominant players can advance to Sunday's final, on the heels of their breathtaking match at Wimbledon, it would most certainly be a showcase event in Beijing.

Both men won their first-round matches on Monday, and talked afterward about the thrill of playing for their respective countries. But the fact is, they need Beijing in what could be considered watershed moments in their careers. Federer just turned 27 and is coming off losses to Nadal at the French Open and Wimbledon, and Nadal takes over the No. 1 ranking next week, a spot Federer has held for a record 235 weeks.

"I think any time those guys have been playing in finals, they've been playing some pretty good tennis," said Australian Lleyton Hewitt, who will try to knock off Nadal in the second round. "So it would obviously raise the profile of the final if those two were to meet in the final.

"They've had such a unique rivalry over the last two or three years, as well, and probably more so right at the moment because Raf has started to go on top of Roger. Obviously, a lot of people know who those two are even if you're not that big of a tennis fan."

They know who Serena Williams is, too, though she hasn't been as visible this week in Beijing. A foreign journalist asked her on Monday if the highest-ranked tennis players are spoiled because some of them, including Williams, aren't staying in the athletes' village. Williams didn't attend Friday night's Opening Ceremony, either.

She quickly pointed out that some of the U.S. men's basketball players are also kicking it in area hotels. She said she values her privacy and her sleep.

"I'm probably one of the few people [who] get sleepy at 7 o'clock," she said. "I go to sleep really early. I've been to the Opening Ceremonies at Sydney, and I was in a foul mood by the time 5 o'clock came around, and it just wasn't worth it. After seven hours of standing, I've got to preserve my body."

Despite her impatience with some of the lengthier Olympic traditions, Williams said the gold medal she won with her sister Venus in 2000 is the only trinket she shows off to friends.

"It's my favorite thing that I have," she said.

Tennis was dropped from the Olympic program after 1924 amid turmoil over the lines between amateurism and professionalism. It didn't return as a medal sport until 1988.

Nadal calls the Olympics "one of the most important things of the year." Federer is obviously taking it seriously. He left the village last week under the crush of autograph requests from fellow athletes. He said he had to stay focused.

"Just being here is quite unique," Federer said on Monday. "Especially after spending an incredible couple of weeks in Sydney, which, to me, will always stay in my memory as one of the greatest sports dreams that I've ever had.

"I hope that with my presence and also with Rafi's presence ... I think that's only going to make it more important for the future generations, as well."

Elizabeth Merrill is a senior writer for ESPN.com. She can be reached at merrill2323@hotmail.com.