Nadal draws level with Federer after marathon final win

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It takes time for rivalries to develop and can take even longer for friendship to grow between players whose job is to plot each other's downfall. Sometimes they choose to keep their distance throughout their careers.

The 19-year-old Spaniard Rafael Nadal may have wrecked Roger Federer's hopes of completing his collection of the four Grand Slam singles titles by edging the 24-year-old Swiss world No 1 out of the French Open semi-finals in June, but the pair already seem to hit it off.

En route to winning yesterday's final of the Madrid Masters, Nadal, the world No 2, spared a thought for the injured master of the game, who is back home in Basle nursing three damaged ankle ligaments.

By defeating Ivan Ljubicic of Croatia, 3-6, 2-6, 6-3, 6-4, 7-6 after three hours 51 minutes, Nadal equalled Federer's four Masters series titles for the year - a record - and also drew alongside him with 11 titles for the season.

"I spoke to Federer on the phone the other day and asked him how his ankle was," Nadal said. "He was still on crutches but hopes to be in Shanghai [for the Masters Cup]. I have spoken with him a few times, to congratulate him on winning Wimbledon, for instance, and on winning the US Open.

"We have a good relationship. Federer is not only No 1 and a great person, he's a man that's calm and quiet, a good person. He's nice. That's the most important thing."

After defeating Federer at the French Open, Nadal wanted to practise with Federer at Wimbledon, but was too shy to ask. He approached Vittorio Selmi, the ATP's head of player liaison to make the request on his behalf. Selimi told Nadal to go ahead and ask, but then explained the situation to Federer.

One day, when Nadal was in the players' lounge, Federer walked in and said to Selmi in a loud voice: "Do you know why this guy doesn't want to practise with me?" Nadal blushed.

The pair did not get to hit together, because Nadal lost in the second round, but a bond was established.

Nadal's opponent yesterday, the 26-year-old Ljubicic, who has inspired his country to the Davis Cup final, also had a lot at stake. Competing in his third ATP tour final in three weeks - and his first in a Masters Series event - Ljubicic was a contender to take one of the final places in the eight-man Masters Cup.

By defeating David Nalbandian, of Argentina, in the semi-finals, Ljubicic extended his winning run of matches to 16. Long admired for his powerful serve, canny ground-strokes and refreshingly realistic attitude to the sport, Ljubicic has emerged as a force.

A year ago, he beat Tim Henman in three sets in the third round here in a match that was scheduled too early to draw enough spectators to create an atmosphere. Asked if that bothered him, Ljubicic said, "No, I'm the type of player who's used to being sent out to play early in tournaments."

Those days appear to be behind Ljubicic, who in the last few days has made a major contribution to a tournament denied leading players such as Federer, Lleyton Hewitt, Andre Agassi and Marat Safin because of injuries.

He even courted minor controversy. One of the model ball girls, Emma, was involved in a minor incident during Ljubicic's match against Nalbandian. Ljubicic, break point down, told Emma that she was too close to him and threw the ball too hard. Emma took offence, and complained to the umpire.

"It was a misunderstanding," Ljubicic said. "I tried to show her how to throw the ball. The people started to whistle."

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