Their rivalry has the potential to become the biggest draw in tennis, yet Rafael Nadal is the first to dismiss any suggestion that he might soon dislodge Roger Federer from his No 1 status. The world's two best players meet here tonight in the final of the Dubai Duty Free Open, but when the Spaniard was asked if he ever thought about overtaking Federer his response was short.
"No, I am far," Nadal said in his engaging broken English. "But you're only a few points behind Federer," the reporter continued. "No, I am far," Nadal repeated. "Do you think about it anyway?" his persistent questioner asked. "I am very far - if you look at the points I am very far," Nadal said. His interrogator wisely admitted defeat.
The Spanish teenager will at least have the chance tonight to close the gap on a player he regards as "the best sportsman in the world". Nadal enjoyed a comfortable 6-4, 6-2 win over the German Rainer Schüttler in yesterday's semi-finals, while Federer beat Russia's Mikhail Youzhny 6-2, 6-3 with a performance that contained some thrilling tennis after an erratic start.
Nadal, who was out for three months over the winter with a foot injury, is playing his second comeback tournament after reaching the semi-finals in Marseilles last month. He feels he has been improving with every match and Schüttler was certainly no match for him.
The German dropped his serve in the first game and although he broke back to level at 4-4, Nadal promptly broke again and served out the set. Schüttler rallied after Nadal took the first four games of the second set, but he was only delaying the inevitable.
However, a better player than Schüttler would surely have taken advantage of Nadal's frequent errors and the cautious half-court balls he often seemed content to play. The 19-year-old admits he will have to play differently against Federer. "I will try to play a bit more aggressively. If he feels comfortable it's very difficult because he has all the shots."
Federer has also been feeling his way back, having taken a month off after winning the Australian Open. He got into trouble in his first four service games, in which he trailed 0-40, 0-40, 0-30 and 0-30, but on each occasion he quickly recovered his poise. Federer broke in the second and eighth games to take the first set with something to spare. Moreover, there were signs in an excellent second set that the Swiss could soon be back to his best. Two shots were exquisite: a running backhand pass down the line and a high backhand lob volley after Youzhny had successfully chased down a drop shot.
Federer took mock offence when he was asked how deliberate the lob had been. "Come on, man, are you kidding me?" he said. "In practice I try it sometimes. But it's not so easy to play because it's hard to remember the dimensions of the court when you've got your back to your opponent and the net. It was a great play and I surprised myself."
The victory extended Federer's perfect record this year to 16 matches and his winning sequence on hard courts to 56. The world rankings support Nadal's claim of the No 1's overwhelming superiority - he has 4,445 points compared to Federer's 6,725 (the third-placed Andy Roddick has 2,685, an indication of the gap between the top two and the rest) - but the Spaniard has won two of their three matches.
Nadal drew first blood two years ago in Miami, Federer came back from two sets down to win at the same venue 12 months later and Nadal won in four sets in the French Open semi-finals last June. Federer knows Nadal is an opponent who deserves respect.
"There's still an unknown factor about him," the Swiss said. "We don't have many great lefties in the game. He's a great athlete and he plays fantastic tennis. That makes his combination very hard to play against."