Federer still trying to break the Rafa code

Updated: February 10, 2009

Stacked résumé

Roger Federer is addicted to being the best. He certainly didn't hide this proclivity during the year-end Masters Cup, explaining that when he hears himself introduced as the world No. 2, it sounds foreign.

The elegant Federer had an impregnable game. That was, until Rafael Nadal evolved into a powerhouse and began exposing weaknesses in Federer's artillery, both physical and mental. Now Federer is palpably nervous as to whether he can break the Nadal code and capture a record-tying 14th Grand Slam title.

Is the inequity between them driving Federer crazy? Well, we know for sure he has shed a few tears. Here are 10 essential ingredients Rafael Nadal has that Roger Federer doesn't.

1. Six Grand Slam titles at age 22: Nadal owns trophies from four French Opens, one Wimbledon and an Australian Open. In comparison, Federer's majors tally by age 22 was only half as large as Nadal's: two consecutive Wimbledon trophies and a lone Australian Open crown.

2. French Open champion: If not for Nadal, Federer might own three French Open titles: He has been the runner-up at Roland Garros the past three years. But it is Nadal who owns the clay. He will arrive in Paris in May as the four-time French Open champion, and there isn't a hint that his reign is likely to end.

Paul Crock/AFP/Getty Images

A pensive Roger Federer needs to make drastic moves if he ever dreams of ending Rafa's reign.

3. Olympic singles gold medal: Playing in three Olympic Games (Sydney, Athens and Beijing), the closest Federer came to a medal in singles was a losing performance in the bronze-medal match at the 2000 Sydney Games. It's hard not to imagine it galls Federer -- a gold-star candidate in the sportsmanship department -- that he went home from Beijing this summer with doubles gold while Nadal won the singles title in his first Olympics.

4. Davis Cup champion: Nadal has always considered playing Davis Cup an honor and a top priority. His teenage-hero role in the 2004 final against the U.S. made him front-page news across Spain. An injury kept him out of this year's final win over Argentina, but he was still an integral part of the team. Meanwhile, Federer has cherry-picked his Davis Cup outings, often missing the first round, which often left Switzerland out of contention. Take notice, though, that Federer is now acting with Davis Cup urgency: He has committed to first-round action against the U.S. next month.

5. World No. 1: Federer wants the ranking back, but Nadal's Australian Open victory widened the point gap between the two. Nadal is now a comfortable 3,260 points ahead of Federer.

6. Grand Slam titles on three surfaces: Nadal is the first player since Andre Agassi -- who is one of five men to capture all four Grand Slam trophies -- to win majors on all three surfaces: clay, grass and hard court. Federer's 13 Slams have come on grass and hard courts.

7. Beats the best: Nadal has a winning record against the top seven players: Federer (13-6), Novak Djokovic (10-4), Andy Murray (5-1), Nikolay Davydenko (3-2), Andy Roddick(4-2), Juan Martin del Potro (3-0) and Gilles Simon (3-1). Federer currently has a losing record against Nadal as well as Murray (2-5) and Simon (0-2).

8. Stable coaching relationship: Rafa has Uncle Toni, a career-long mentor who has transformed him into the ultimate competitor. Federer stubbornly insists he understands his game better than anyone, so a full-time coach is unnecessary. He severed his most recent semi-permanent coaching relationship, with Tony Roche, in May 2007. Unheralded Swiss Davis Cup captain Severin Luthi has been with Federer at the past few majors.

9. The French-Queens-Wimbledon trifecta: No man before Nadal had ever won successive titles at the French Open (clay), Queen's Club (grass) and Wimbledon (grass), which he achieved in 2008. Federer has played Queen's only once, in 1999, playing the softer Halle, Germany, tournament in subsequent years.

10. Southpaw advantage: Nadal is blessed with being a lefty, giving him a distinct edge over opponents not as comfortable with the southpaw's spin of the ball. Though Federer has a 61-23 record against lefties in his career, 13 of his 23 losses came against Nadal.

Sandra Harwitt is a freelance tennis writer for ESPN.com.



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Serbian spectacle


It's no surprise that interest in tennis is thriving in Serbia, homeland to three of the game's top stars: Novak Djokovic, Jelena Jankovic and Ana Ivanovic.

So when Serbia hosted Japan in the first round of Fed Cup last weekend, fans in Belgrade flocked to see Jankovic and Ivanovic.

In fact, the 15,118 watching Serbia capture a 4-1 victory -- the duo lost the doubles point -- was the biggest crowd assembled in history to watch Fed Cup.

Among the dignitaries on hand were Serbian President Boris Tadic, Crown Prince Alexander and Princess Katherine.

Double duty?


It's rare in the upper tiers of Davis Cup competition to find a captain who is still a viable player for the team. Andrei Pavel finds himself in this situation as the new captain of the Romanian team.

Pavel, 35, has played Davis Cup the past 16 years, compiling a 40-22 record in 27 ties.

Struggling with a back problem, he admitted at the Australian Open that he might relegate himself to the bench.

He recently reached the third round of the men's Australian Open doubles draw with Horia Tecau, notably upsetting No. 10 seeds Simon Aspelin and Pavel Vizner in the first round. Even though he's injured, Pavel believes he is helping the team by continuing to play.

"This tournament brings me more to that decision," Pavel told ESPN.com in Australia. "I used to play singles and doubles in Davis Cup. I'm kind of thinking about it, but I still haven't figured it out. I have a little time for that."

The Romanians play host to Russia in the opening round of Davis Cup, March 6-8.

Decisions, decisions


2002 French Open champion Albert Costa holds no illusions that he can continue to play Davis Cup for Spain.

The retired Costa, however, is thrilled to be involved in the game in a coaching capacity. And he recently moved up the ladder from Davis Cup coach to captain when Emilio Sanchez stepped down from the role after leading Spain to victory over Argentina last year.

Costa is fortunate to have many capable players. Among the players in his stable are world No. 1 Rafael Nadal, Fernando Verdasco, David Ferrer, Tommy Robredo and Feliciano Lopez.

But Costa knows having too many options can make for awkward moments.

"It's tough to say to one player they're not on the team," Costa told ESPN.com. "But for me, it is the pleasure to have these kinds of players."

Not so fast


If you hear whispers that Jelena Jankovic is getting married to Mladjan Janovic, the Montenegrin water polo star she began dating at last year's Olympics in Beijing, don't run out and buy a wedding present. Both stars admit they are head over heels, but they won't be inviting guests to nuptials anytime soon.