BY MICHELLE KAUFMAN
The first sign Roger Federer might have met his nemesis came two years ago, in a third-round match in Key Biscayne. Rafael Nadal, 17 years old at the time and ranked No. 34, biceps
bulging from his red sleeveless shirt, left world No. 1 Federer's head spinning with a 6-3, 6-3 victory that took just more than an hour.
It wasn't just Nadal's strength and quickness that unsettled Federer, it was his blistering, left-handed shots loaded with topspin -- especially his crosscourt forehand, bouncing
way up on Federer's shoulder, the one spot that exposes the tiniest of holes in Federer's game.
Federer and Nadal met again on that same Crandon Park court for the NASDAQ-100 Open final last March, and the swashbuckling Spaniard nearly pulled off another shocker, going up two
sets to one and 4-1 in the third before Federer rallied for a 2-6, 6-7 (4-7), 7-6 (7-5), 6-3, 6-1 victory.
Nadal went on to beat Federer in the French Open semifinals and again last month in Dubai, ensuring the men are bona fide rivals as they enter the 2006 NASDAQ-100 Open, which
Federer is 10-1 against Andy Roddick and has won nine straight against Lleyton Hewitt, but he is 1-3 against Nadal, which makes for the kind of rivalry tennis has been starving for
since Pete Sampras took his final bow after beating Andre Agassi in the 2002 U.S. Open final.
In the past 15 months, Federer and Nadal have separated themselves from the rest of the men on tour, combining for four of five Grand Slam titles and nine of 10 Masters Series
''I think the potential is there for this to become a great rivalry, because Nadal has gotten somewhat into Federer's head by winning three of their four matches, and almost
winning at NASDAQ last year,'' TV analyst Patrick McEnroe said. ``But for it to become a big rivalry like Sampras-Agassi or my brother [John] and [Jimmy] Connors, Nadal needs to do
something outside the French. He needs to make a major run at Wimbledon or the U.S. Open. Federer has won seven majors and Nadal has won one.''
Said Agassi: ``I think it would be nearly impossible for anybody to dominate in the nature that Roger has over the last few years. It's great to see that the one person that's
probably closest to him is actually a difficult matchup for Roger. Nadal can hit the one shot that everybody wishes they could hit to Roger, and that's the ball up and get it over
his backhand side. I mean, that's not brain surgery. Nobody likes it up here. So, it's great to see the matchup that lends for a rivalry that might continue for a long time.''
It is still far too early to compare Federer-Nadal with the Bjorn Borg vs. John McEnroe rivalry, or Connors-McEnroe, or Sampras-Agassi, who played each other 34 times, including in
five major finals. But there is no question the court sizzles when Nadal takes on Federer.
The contrast in personalities and styles are the stuff rivalries are made of. Federer is clean-cut, and his every move is measured and precise. When Nadal steps on the Crandon Park
courts, it looks like he just walked over from the beach with his Coppertone tan, calf-length pirate pants, muscle shirt and bandanna. Nadal plays with reckless abandon, chasing
down everything and sending dizzying shots into the places Federer prefers not to go.
''This is a pure, sweet growing rivalry, and the beauty of it is that their games are so different,'' TV analyst Mary Carillo said. ``Nadal gets after Federer's backhand, and the
ball bounces up at Federer's shoulder, which is a problem for him. Federer is going to have to come in more and take it to him at the net, and Nadal wants long rallies. Not since
Borg-McEnroe have we seen, stylistically, such a fun matchup. It's going to be great.
``Last year's NASDAQ final was really when it started. We all knew Nadal was a clay-court specialist, but here he was, taking on a great hard courter and the No. 1 player in the
world, and that match was Nadal's declaration that, `Hey, if you think I'm just a ***ager who's good on clay, think again.''
Federer, always diplomatic, insisted he respects many players on tour but admitted that Nadal presents unique obstacles.
''I enjoy the challenge with him,'' Federer said. ``He's a terrific scrambler, and he brings something else to the game as a great left-hander, and we don't have many of those. I
consider that a tough thing to do, to play against a good lefty. The more matches I play against him, also it's going to be easier for both of us to know.''
Despite his winning record against the world No. 1, Nadal remains humble and insists theirs is not yet a true rivalry.
''I don't think so,'' Nadal said. ``I am very young, and he is an unbelievable player, one of the best in history and the best player now by far. If you look at the ranking, if you
look at the points, if you look at the grand slam titles, we don't have competition.''