What kind of rivalry is it when the people involved never play each other?
Guess how many times Federer and Nadal have played each other since their classic Wimbledon final in July 2008, when Nadal won and tennis was a mainstream sport for an afternoon, and maybe for another day of office discussion. Twice. In nearly 21 months.
The sport has benefited some. Federer was elevated into the mainstream and is no longer written about as the greatest athlete no one ever talks about. Attendance, equipment sales and player participation are up. But it could have been so much more. Some people are thinking -- and writing -- that the whole thing is dead and over now.
I don't think so. For now, the rivalry just needs a defibrillator, those paddles that shock the heart back into rhythm. These guys need to get on the court together.
How about an exhibition between them, or maybe three exhibitions with the winner getting a huge pot?
I know it would mess up the schedule. It's not ideal. It won't produce the blood and guts, won't duplicate the Wimbledon final. But it's the match the mainstream sports fan is interested in. And even if it looks forced and isn't the natural flow of a rivalry, it at least gets them on the court together.
If that idea sounds desperate, well, OK, call it that. Sometimes, desperation is the most sensible path.
I took the idea to Marc Ganis, president of SportsCorp, a Chicago-based sports marketing firm. And you know what he thought of my idea? Hated it.
"It would be perceived as an exhibition rather than a meaningful competition," he said. "It's a dramatic difference in the way it's perceived. But it's not a crazy idea.
"If you expand it out a little and make it a group of four or six or eight of the best-known players, then that would work, and you would wind up getting many Nadal-Federer matches. Golf does that with the Skins games."
Ganis thinks an expanded exhibition like that would have people thinking that Nadal and Federer earned their way to their match.
To me, contrived is better than nothing.
Has tennis gotten the most bang for the buck with this rivalry?
"No," Ganis said. "But there's a way to capitalize on a great rivalry."
Golf also tried to match up Tiger Woods with other stars and legends in such events as Battle at Bighorn, Battle of the Bridges, Showdown at Sherwood. They had moments. But Sir Alex Ferguson, legendary leader of Manchester United, once told me that American adults never fall for soccer because they don't see the game at its highest level.
Man U. was planning an exhibition in Chicago. It was the day I planned to fall in love with soccer. But by the end, everyone was booing. The players weren't trying. That's the risk with forcing Federer and Nadal together.
The scary thing for tennis is that recent tennis rivalries haven't lasted much longer than Federer-Nadal has. In fact, these guys have already played more finals against each other in majors (seven), than John McEnroe-Bjorn Borg (four), McEnroe-Jimmy Connors (two) and Pete Sampras-Andre Agassi (five).
In all, Federer and Nadal have played 20 times, with Nadal winning 13. McEnroe-Borg played just 14 times; McEnroe-Connors, 34; and Sampras-Agassi, also 34.
But the Nadal-Federer rivalry never seemed like a rivalry until that 2008 Wimbledon. Before that, Nadal owned his turf -- clay -- and Federer owned grass and hard courts. It wasn't until Nadal beat Federer on grass that this thing really started. And other than another great final Nadal won at the 2009 Australian Open, a match that tennis fans loved and the mainstream missed, the rivalry has gone nowhere.
Looking at the draw for the Sony Ericsson Open in Miami starting this week, I would predict a Nadal-Federer final. That would be a much better way than an exhibition, of course, to start up the rivalry again. But I thought they would reach the final at Indian Wells, too. Maybe, the Australian Open, too.
It just keeps not happening.
Still, the clay season is coming and, if Nadal's knees hold up, that could be the time it starts again. For now, Federer waits for Nadal to get it back, and the game promotes all the others moving up. Parity is a nice word, but no one really wants to see it.
"You want dominant forces," Ganis said. "That is far better for interest. Parity is viewed as mediocrity."
Well, the others making up that perceived parity are faltering anyway. No. 2 Novak Djokovic never solidified his one major victory. No. 3 Andy Murray folded against Federer in the Aussie Open final and hasn't been the same since. U.S. Open champ Juan Martin del Potro is hurt. Andy Roddick isn¹t going to reach the top two again.
This rivalry is right there, still able to happen again. But if doesn't happen naturally, there's nothing wrong with a little desperation.