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Looking Like Nadal, Federer ... and Everyone Else

As the New Year approaches, it's standard protocol to review the last 12 months in all sports. But with tennis, it's a decidedly different story, as the sport's calendar is really never conducive to review and contemplation. Rather, since there's no true offseason, it's always about looking ahead to the next event. So here we are, suddenly and abruptly, just three weeks from 2011's first major tournament, the Australian Open.

They say a few months is an eternity in politics. The same may apply to tennis. How drastically different the circumstances are from a year ago. At the start of 2010, Rafael Nadal was a question mark, a man whose early obituaries were written by those who considered his uniquely physical game anathema to a full and satisfying career.

But how wrong the naysayers and fierce traditionalists were. And make no mistake: For those who aren't familiar with tennis, there is always a constant battle between those who favor the classic game as opposed to the unorthodox. Think of Bjorn Borg vs. John McEnroe or Pete Sampras vs. Andre Agassi. A fierce and truly emotional philosophical war exists between partisans.

Most assumed Nadal would never ascend the heights he achieved in 2008, when he won his usual French Open, his first Wimbledon and the Olympic gold. But here the Mallorcan stood at the end of 2010, the winner of three consecutive Slams (his fifth French, second Wimbledon and first U.S. title) and occupying a spot so far above his rivals in the rankings that many caught-up-in-the-moment commentators, such as John McEnroe, declared, "Maybe Nadal will turn out to be better than Roger Federer."

Here's where it might get very interesting. If Nadal were to win in Melbourne, he will be on his way to five straight Slam victories (assuming he'd win his sixth French crown) and thus occupy a place heretofore unknown in the Open era. So does that mean he will have to be considered better than Federer? Maybe.

When Federer ruled the universe in 2004 and '05, Nadal was considered some lefty clay-court freak who could annoy the king on his least favorite surface. But, obviously, Nadal has proved to be just as good as, if not better than, the great Federer on all terrain. And now Federer is always the underdog against Nadal, no matter the surface. Nobody would have predicted this.

Which is why the notion that Nadal can legitimately be called the greatest player ever is also ridiculous. Few seem to remember that Juan Martin del Potro demolished Nadal in the semifinals of the 2009 U.S. Open (albeitly a somewhat injured Rafa) and then overpowered Federer in the finals to claim his one and only Slam.

Del Potro was injured during the entire 2010 season. But now he appears ready to play, and it will be fascinating to see if Nadal can defeat him in big matches.

Novak Djokovic and Andy Murray, the two players ranked just below Nadal and Federer, have been the assumed heirs-apparent. But neither player, despite managing several victories against both Nadal and Federer, really instills a sense of fear in the top two like del Potro can.

This is where del Potro is different. When at his best, the Argentine can impose his power game and render impotent all foes, Federer and Nadal included. Which is why it is essential that he return to top form in 2011. For just as Federer needed Nadal as a measuring stick, it may well turn out to be the same for Nadal and del Potro.

Men's tennis is set up for a fascinating season in 2011, one in which the never-tired refrain of "Nadal and Federer" will still be uttered on countless occasions. But Federer, 30, will find his chances of winning major tournaments declining precipitously.

Tennis fans should continually remind themselves of how truly blessed they are to inhabit this age of such an extraordinary rivalry, even if Federer is on the downside of his career. Nadal and Federer have been the top two players for six years running, something that's never occurred in the history of the sport. And with their foes still seemingly unable to mount consistent challenges, it appears that little else will change in 2011.

Award-winning columnist Tim Joyce provides regular commentary for RealClearSports. His work has also appeared in Yahoo.com, MSNBC.com, and Tennis Week. Email: joyce.timothy@gmail.com

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