I never really would have put followers of Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal in the same category of Yankees and Red Sox fans -- or any team sports, for that matter. Tennis is supposed to be more genteel, a place where folks have a healthy respect for all great players and choose their rooting interests based on matchups.
But two columns I wrote in the New York Times for the recent U.S. Open have convinced me otherwise. Federer versus Nadal -- on the court and as a concept -- may as well be Boston-New York. Or Real Madrid-Barcelona, for the sake of a comparison Nadal would better appreciate.
The first column (http://www.nytimes.com/2013/08/26/sports/tennis/federers-farewell-should-be-celebrated-but-not-too-soon.html?pagewanted=all) dealt with with Federer's slump and the inevitable speculation of how long he would continue to play. The mere mention of what I called the R word set Fed followers into a frenzy. How dare I or anyone try to push this brilliant artist out before his time -- which, of course, was only an interpretation of the column, not the point.
That column drew 172 responses, far more than the average piece for which a comment page is offered.
The second piece (http://www.nytimes.com/2013/09/06/sports/tennis/in-federer-nadal-rivalry-best-debate-is-yet-to-come.html) was written after Federer was beaten in straight sets by a Spaniard he'd never lost to, Tommy Robredo, in the fourth round in straight sets. The defeat was not only sobering for all who root for and admire Federer; it also deprived the Open of an anticipated showdown with the peaking Nadal in the fourth round.
The point of the second column was to argue that even if Federer's decline was worse than feared and his days as a viable contender at the four majors was concluding, his rivalry with Nadal was likely to continue in a historically grander sense. Nadal now has 13 slam victories, four behind Federer's record 17. Nadal is only 27. Assuming the tendinitis in his knees don't force him off the tour for more prolonged periods (granted, the odds would appear to be about 50-50), Nadal would have a real chance to equal or surpass Federer, given his off-the-charts competitive hunger.
The second column drew 187 responses, as it set off the Greatest Of All Time (GOAT) argument. Federer fans had grown accustomed to standing behind the Grand Slam firewall or by insisting that Federer at his height was the most complete tennis package ever. Nadal fans ask the logical question: even if Nadal doesn't catch Federer, how can anyone be the greatest when his career record against his primary rival is 10-21?
Though hardly rising to the level of soccer hooliganism, the debate often sounded like a good screaming match on sports talk radio. Which, of course, in the final analysis is a credit to Federer and Nadal -- two Europeans who get a serious rise out of an American newspaper audience.