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Top-ranked Rafael Nadal unleashes a forehand during his second round win against Teimuraz Gabashvili at the 2009 French Open. Nadal would eventually lose to #23 Robin Soderling in the fourth round, ending his streak of 31 consecutive wins at Roland Garros.
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The Parisians all wanted to see it. No doubt the television networks were banking on it. Tennis fans universally last week were anticipating the next chapter in what’s become an historic rivalry between Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal in the French Open finals.

It didn’t happen.

Instead, Robin Soderling took out Nadal in the fourth round, opening the path for Federer to claim his record-tying fourteenth grand slam title.

While it was nice to see Federer finally win the French, it was disappointing that it happened this way, without him having to face his nemesis on clay. After the match, Federer alluded to the rivalry, stating that he felt like he still deserved the title because he beat Nadal a few weeks earlier in Madrid.

It’s rare that two players dominate a sport as much as Federer and Nadal have dominated men’s tennis — combined, they’ve won 18 of the last 20 grand slam titles, meeting each other in the finals seven of those times. It’s a match-up that over the last few years has developed into the greatest individual rivalry in sports.

It’s not just that these two players have been meeting each other consistently in finals — it’s that the matches themselves have been great. The Australian Open final this January went the distance, and was enough to draw tears from the defeated Federer. The Wimbledon final last year went back and forth, with Nadal pulling through in five sets.

I wasn’t alive during the time that Bjorn Borg was facing off against John McEnroe, or Martina Navratilova was battling Chris Evert-Lloyd, but I can’t imagine the anticipation or intrigue being any higher than it is when Federer plays Nadal.

Perhaps my desire to see Federer and Nadal duel has been fueled by the rest of the sports world. Sports fans in general this year have been treated to countless match-ups where the top players in their respective sports have squared off against each other.

Hockey fans saw Sidney Crosby and Alexander Ovechkin go head to head in a seven game playoff series, which included a game where both players scored a hat trick. Soccer saw the two best players in the world, Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo, face off in the Champions League Final, where Messi’s header put the finishing touches on Barcelona’s title. NASCAR saw Jimmy Johnson and Carl Edwards face off down the stretch, with Johnson winning his third straight Cup Series Championship.

Even the world of competitive eating (let’s not argue here if it’s a sport or not) saw the rivalry of Takeru Kobayashi and Joey Chestnut heat up, with Chestnut winning a five-dog playoff in last year’s Nathan’s Hot Dog Eating Contest.

Perhaps the only other disappointment besides Federer/Nadal came recently in the NBA, where the media-hyped match-up between Kobe Bryant and LeBron James died after the Cavaliers fell flat against the Orlando Magic.

Despite the rivalry match-up that failed to be, years from now most people will probably forget who Federer beat to win the title. They’ll just remember the man on his way to setting the all-time records for men’s grand slam singles titles.

Americans disappoint, again

Though this year’s winner was not surprising, some of the upsets that took place during the tournament were. Nadal’s loss to Soderling wasn’t the only big shock. Novak Djokovic was upset early by Philipp Kohlschreiber, Murray lost in the quarterfinals to Fernando Gonzalez, and Venus Williams and Elena Dementieva both lost in the third round.

The Americans were dismal in Paris as usual, but this year I got to witness the carnage first hand. After talking my way into Court 1 to see James Blake play his first round match against Leonardo Mayer, I was awarded with steady inconsistency and frustration from the American. Despite the fact that Blake was hitting the ball harder than anyone else I had seen that day, his lack of a return game and Mayer’s heavy spin left Blake talking to himself throughout the short-lived match.

Watching Mardy Fish’s match was equally as telling, although he put up more of a fight against clay court specialist Maximo Gonzalez. On TV it’s hard to notice how different the play on clay is, but in person, the difference in pace and spin is amplified. Sitting court-side watching Fish, I could see as the high balls of the serve were frustrating Fish, and Gonzalez was running down balls that on any other surface would be clean winners from Fish.

Andy Roddick was the lone American bright spot over the fortnight, as he managed to get into the fourth round for the first time at the French Open. While he and the other Americans regroup and enter the grass court season hoping to make a run at Wimbledon, all the rest of us can do is wait and hope for another Federer-Nadal final.