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Friday, April 3, 2009
Interlopers threaten Nadal-Fed finals party

KEY BISCAYNE, Fla. -- Just as we got settled in and comfy, ready to savor the Roger Federer-versus-Rafael Nadal rivalry, a few interested parties began to bang on the door, call the land line, flood the inbox and Twitter away with an overriding message: Don't count us out.

After a disastrous performance by Federer on Friday, one day after Nadal bowed out in the quarterfinals, you'll notice the one thing we will not have seen during the U.S. hard-court double (Indian Wells and Key Biscayne) is a final between these two. This is striking, because it isn't as if either of these guys, ranked No. 1 (Nadal) and No. 2 in the world, has an aversion to hard courts (Federer owns the U.S. Open, and Nadal just won the Australian title). And these two spring tournaments are Masters 1000 events -- kissing cousins to the Grand Slams.

So, what happened? Well, Andy Murray happened. And Juan Martin del Potro happened. And a whole slew of similarly dangerous players, including the rejuvenated Andy Roddick and Novak Djokovic, have decided to make life just a little more difficult for the two icons.

And there are good reasons to wonder if the coming months won't yield more stumbling blocks for the Federer-Nadal narrative. Federer has been vulnerable ever since he bagged his last U.S. Open title in September and his meltdown in Miami versus Djokovic magnified his struggles. Besides, he's about to become a daddy, so he can be forgiven for taking his eye off the ball as the year wears on.

Nadal roared out to a terrific start, winning in Melbourne, and he leaves the U.S. with another 1000 Masters title (Indian Wells) and a quarterfinal at Key Biscayne. Nothing wrong with that, particularly for a guy who as few as two years ago was still being described in some quarters as a clay-court specialist.

But Nadal made a cryptic comment in his presser after he lost to Del Potro here Thursday. He was asked if he was puzzled by the degree to which he floundered in his last few matches here, and he said: "Always is a reason because you are not playing at your level during the tournament. No, I am calm. I am happy about myself, about everything this year, yeah … I don't know. Always is a reason, but it's personal."

OK, there's no need to turn this into a soap opera. Just what he meant by personal is unknown to the public. But it was also clear that Nadal was distracted and out of sorts in his match with Del Potro, so you have to wonder about his focus. He's lucky, though, because it's hard to imagine a distraction so debilitating that Nadal can't do his usual tap dance on everyone's faces in the upcoming clay-court season.

Right now, it's hard to imagine any of the emerging or established stars -- Murray, Del Potro, Novak Djokovic, Roddick, Jo-Wilfried Tsonga -- stealing Nadal's thunder on red dirt. But any could make Federer's life more difficult, so it would be rash to anticipate a string of Federer-Nadal finals in the coming months.

That's alright. You can always retrieve the DVD of that 2008 Wimbledon final and pop it into the box.