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Nadal could be only one to compete with Federer

NEW YORK -- Two years ago, the tennis future that is now could be seen here on Practice Court No. 5.

Carlos Moya traded deep ground strokes with a left-handed youngster whose muscles and manner far exceeded his years -- and Moya got his butt kicked. Even hitting meaningless balls, his less-celebrated partner seemed consumed by a smoldering intensity. Spectators murmured when his heavy forehands skidded past Moya along the baseline.

Rafael Nadal was just 17 years old.

And while he eventually would lose to Younes El Aynaoui in the second round, Nadal clearly was ahead of his time.

Fast forward to Monday, and suddenly, the striking Spaniard from Mallorca remains on his unprecedented timetable.

A year ago, Nadal was ranked No. 51 in the world. In eight short months, at age 19, Nadal has gone from prodigy to prodigious. He's ranked No. 2 in the world and seems to be the only player capable of competing with the ethereal Roger Federer.

"Think about it -- he's 19," Tennis Week senior correspondent Steve Flink said. "That's encouraging, because he's playing Federer tough already. I think that it will become a good rivalry."

The numbers, believe it or not, suggest it is possible.

Nadal has won 66 matches in this, his breakout season -- two more than Federer. They have both won an astounding nine titles; Gaston Gaudio (five) and Andy Roddick (four) are the only other ATP players with more than two. They combined to won all seven ATP Masters Series titles this year, four for Federer and three for Nadal. Both men have a Grand Slam singles title this season, Federer winning Wimbledon and Nadal earning his first at the French Open. It is worth noting that Nadal beat Federer in the semifinals at Roland Garros, one of his only three losses this year.

The context of Nadal's ascent is even more astonishing.

He is the first male teenager to win nine tennis tournaments since Mats Wilander in 1983. The next three names in the record book of the Open Era: Bjorn Borg (seven), Andre Agassi (six) and Boris Becker (six). In Paris, he was the youngest men's Grand Slam winner since Pete Sampras, also 19, broke through at the 1990 U.S. Open. Sampras went on to win a record 14 Grand Slam titles.

Nadal was his flashy, formidable self Monday at Arthur Ashe Stadium, only about 100 yards from Practice Court No. 5, filleting American wild card Bobby Reynolds 6-3, 6-3, 6-4.

From the time he sprinted to the baseline after his pre-match meeting at net with Reynolds, Nadal exuded the confidence and manic energy of youth. Wearing his trademark three-quarter-length pants (black) with a form-fitting sleeveless shirt (red) and wide, white bandana, Nadal had the look of an inscrutable pirate -- if pirates ever had six-pack abs and bulging biceps.

Speed is his greatest asset; he seems to run down nearly every ball. Nadal's heavy topspin forehand is his out pitch. The combination is almost always fatal. Opponents like Reynolds, even when they have a reasonable shot at the ball, feel the pressure to make too fine a shot. In a deceptively close first set -- there were seven deuces on Reynolds' serve alone -- the American seemed to have a winner lined up and pushed it long. Reynolds committed 41 unforced errors -- in truth, many were quite forced.

Nadal is blessed with athletic genes. His uncle Miguel Angel played soccer for Barcelona and Real Mallorca, and a second uncle, Toni, started Nadal in tennis at age 3 and coaches him to this day. Nadal won his first ATP match, at age 15, in 2002. In 2003, he went from No. 235 to No. 47 in the rankings and was ATP's Newcomer of the Year. In 2004, he won 45 of 74 matches on the tour and became the youngest player, at 18, in more than a century to win a singles match in the Davis Cup final for the winning nation. He beat Andy Roddick in four sets.

The 2005 season began slowly after Nadal missed Roland Garros and Wimbledon in 2004. He got knocked out in Doha and Auckland, and then lost to Lleyton Hewitt in the fourth round of the Australian Open and to Gaston Gaudio in Buenos Aires. It amounted to four losses in five weeks. Since the middle of February this year, Nadal has won 59 of 64 matches. He won ATP Masters Series titles in Monte Carlo and Rome, sandwiched around another win in Barcelona.

In retrospect, the French Open was a foregone conclusion. His 34-match winning streak on clay remains intact. And then something interesting happened three weeks ago. On the hard courts of Montreal, he defeated all six of his opponents, including Andre Agassi, in a torch-passing final.

Nadal is not built like a classic European clay-court player. He has power in his game and a hunger to succeed on all surfaces.

"The hard court, if it's slow, is not too much difference than clay," Nadal said after Monday's match. "I feel good in the hard court. I play good in Australia. I was winning two sets to one and 5-4 in the fourth in Miami, unbelievable match with Federer."

Indeed, in Nadal's first important final, when he had the world's best player one game from extinction. And then he totally melted down, losing 15 of the last 20 games. Five months later, on an historic run, Nadal may be poised for another great leap in his continuing evolution.

When asked about a possible matchup with Federer in the final, Nadal, in improving English, quickly dismissed the question.

"Roger needs to win seven matches and me six more," Nadal said. "So we can't speak about that."

Check back in 13 days.

Greg Garber is a senior writer for ESPN.com.