As the curtain rises on the summer North American hard-court Masters events, Rafael Nadal and Roger Federer are engaged in the hunt for something neither prioritized in his comeback this year: the No. 1 ranking.
Can you ask for a more appropriate theme in this astonishing year in tennis?
Nadal is ranked No. 2, with top-ranked Andy Murray out of action because of a hip injury. Should top seed Nadal make to the semis of the Canada Masters (Coupe Rogers) in Montreal this week, he will land back atop the rankings. Federer is seeded No. 2 and fewer than 1,000 ranking points behind Nadal. But he cannot overtake Murray this week.
Rewind to the early part of this year: As Nadal prepared to return to the tour at Acapulco in early March, he vowed that he would not chase the top ranking. "At my age (then 30; now 31), I don't play to become world No. 1," Nadal said in a news conference. "If I will be No. 1, great. But I won't do like I did when I was 22 or 23."
Just weeks later at Indian Wells, Federer told reporters: "Rankings is not a priority right now. It's totally about being healthy, enjoying the tournaments I'm playing and trying to win those."
That was then; this is now.
Federer, like Nadal, is healthy, happy and winning. Suddenly, he's singing a different tune. After winning his eighth Wimbledon title last month, he told reporters: "[If it's a] two-way race between me and Rafa Nadal, I hope it's me and not Rafa because it means a lot to me to get back to No. 1."
Nadal, who is as prudent off the court as he is audacious on it, maintained his indifference to the rankings issue when he arrived in Montreal. But that might be only because he knows that if he achieves his primary objectives, the issue will resolve itself -- in his favor. "I don't even think about that now," he told the ATP website, referring to the No. 1 ranking. "I'm going to keep trying to play the way I did in the first part of the season."
It sounded almost as if Nadal is covering his eyes and plugging his ears, afraid to jinx his chances. Who can blame him? He's almost always done the heavy lifting of his year in the first half. Wimbledon, the scene of his career-defining win over Federer in the 2008 final, has been transformed from magical castle into haunted house. This year Nadal once again failed to meet his seeding (No. 2) there, falling in the fourth round to No. 26 Gilles Muller.
Federer, who just turned 36 on Tuesday, will be a strong favorite to leapfrog over Nadal on the fast hard courts in the coming weeks. He is 31-9 (2-3 in finals) at the Canada Masters, 42-8 at Cincinnati (7-0 in finals) and 78-11 at the US Open, with five wins in seven finals.
Nadal is 28-7 in Canada, with three titles. He won the only time he made the final in Cincinnati, where he's 20-10. He's 46-10 at the US Open, 2-1 in finals.
Historically, Nadal has struggled with both injury and his form during the second half. The theory is that he expends so much energy and enjoys such spectacular success during the clay-court season that he simply doesn't have enough left in the tank, physically or emotionally, to roar through the long, hot U.S. summer.
Barring a fade by Nadal, the weeks ahead are likely to become a Federer-Nadal lovefest as well as a clash of titans. It's probably a good thing for the game.
"We're in good positions, we've gained confidence, we're healthy and fresh, and we know how to win big tournaments," Federer told the ATP, assessing the duo's chances. He added that with so many rivals sidelined, it will be much easier for both men to penetrate beyond the quarterfinals.
Way back when Indian Wells was about to begin, Federer noted that he felt his tournament would be a success if he made it as far as the quarterfinals. At the time, Nadal wasn't even thinking about rankings, never mind drawing to within four wins of the No. 1 spot. "It seems far and near," Federer said of those times. "I have unbelievable respect for Andy finishing last year No. 1. But it looks like now will be a changing of the guard. Rafa absolutely deserves it [the No. 1 ranking]."
Left unsaid: Federer has just as much a claim on the top ranking as Nadal. He didn't have to say it, though. History suggests he will prove it by his results in the coming weeks.