Paris matchless: prince versus pirate

A place in history beckons the two finest players in the world today in an unmissable meeting
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The Independent Online

In the vast, colourful, blaring acreage that is the 2006 World Cup, the tennis at Roland Garros has managed to insert an intrusive, but meaningful, foot because of the soaring merit of this afternoon's men's final. Roger Federer, the world No 1, versus Rafael Nadal, the exuberant Spanish 20-year-old who is defending the title, is the clash everyone demanded and many simply regarded as inevitable, the best two clay-court players on the planet.

"Voila!", exclaimed the headline in France's sports daily, L'Equipe. "The summit!". Le Figaro pointed out: "The whole world is up for Federer-Nadal." Rather than swap thunderballs on Court Philippe Chatrier in pursuit of the Coupe des Mousquetaires and first prize of £644,000, these two could simply hurl statistics at each other. Truly formidable statistics.

Nadal, he of the piratical pants and headband, is going for his 60th straight victory on clay, having left Guillermo Vilas's long-standing record of 53 in his wake after the opening round here. He is in search of a fifth successive win over Federer, an indignity no one else has come near inflicting. He has not been beaten on the slow stuff since April 2005 and bustled into the French Open with three clay titles in his pocket: from Monte Carlo, Barcelona and Rome.

The monster stat pursued by Federer is to win the French and thereby hold all four Grand Slam titles at the same time, a feat last achieved in the men's game by Rod Laver in 1969 and in the women's by Steffi Graf in 1988. Even purists who acclaim those as "true" Grand Slams because they were achieved in a calendar year would surely not quibble overlong about praising Federer, who is operating in more demanding circumstances. And if he should triumph today, the Swiss superman would hold the quite astonishing record of having won all eight Grand Slam finals he has contested.

The prospect of holding the sport's four majors was summed up by this modest genius yesterday as "pretty nice". Both men have dropped just two sets en route to the final. Federer has won 16 sets and 113 games, Nadal 17 sets and 114 games. This is the first French final between the No 1 and No 2 seeds since 1984, when Ivan Lendl rallied to defeat John McEnroe (to McEnroe's enduring grief).

But enough of the statistics. What of the prospects? How can Federer turn round that losing sequence? "I'm feeling good, feeling rested and I know I'm playing well. I've got to play like I did in Rome [where he held two match points before Nadal pipped him in five sets], aggressive, patient, everything."

As for Nadal, he feels he must attempt what to everyone else would appear the impossible by being even more aggressive, though he suffered the indignity of being warned by the umpire for slowness between points in Friday's semi-final against Ivan Ljubicic.

Federer acknowledged this is the contest everyone has clamoured for. "The finals in Rome and Monte Carlo showed we are the best players on clay this season." While not supporting the argument that he and Federer are light years ahead on clay, Nadal acknowledged: "The people who deserve to win, win." So they do, Rafa.

Thanks to David Nalbandian's abdominal strain, which terminated their semi-final in one hour and 48 minutes, Federer is nicely rested. "That's the key here at the French Open," he said. "That you come such a long way and you feel pretty good. So one thing's for sure, I won't lose because I'm tired. Trying to win this title for the first time, my goal was to reach at least the semi-finals [as he did last year, losing to Nadal]. I've surpassed that, so that's fantastic. Quarters and semis are all very nice, but you want to go out there on a Sunday with a chance."

Federer dismissed any belief that Nadal can only win on clay. "Those who say that have absolutely no idea of tennis. [Nadal] has won on other surfaces, indoors in Madrid, outdoors in Toronto, against very good opposition. So it's being consistent that makes the difference. That's why he and I keep ourselves at the top of the ranking."

Though he does not fear Federer, Nadal respects and admires the No 1. "He is one of the best in history. He's a world superstar, and not just in tennis, in all sports. And he's a nice guy. I admire his humble (sic), no?"

And Federer admires Nadal's power and strokemaking genius, no? Well, yes. And with reason. Against Ljubicic, fourth in the world rankings, Nadal offered fleeting moments of fallibility to prove he is human and not from another planet, as his crushed third-round opponent, Paul-Henri Mathieu, maintained. But those moments are comfortably exceeded by shots possibly fashioned on Krypton. You get the impression that, if needed, Rafa could even conjure up a doosra.

Federer let on that "many of those in the locker room are rooting for me" because of the four Slams hope, an opinion reinforced by Ljubicic in the sour aftermath of his defeat by Nadal. "I would love to see Roger win it. I think everybody would, as he is probably the best player ever."

Well, not quite everybody. In Nadal's Majorcan home town, Manacor, giant screens have been erected at the football stadium and the racecourse. No point asking them who they think will win.