Fedex-Rafa collision on grass is an enticing prospect

When we hit this time of the tennis year, things get pretty. Well, if you are the kind of person that enjoys watching the game played on a carpet of green, appreciate quick net exchanges, enjoy the tricky nature of the surface and the subtle skill sets it demands players produce. Once upon a time, they used to call it “Lawn Tennis” and come June and July, the sport reconnects with its original form. Roger Federer was in Stuttgart last week to resume his magical year and the grass awaited him.

After producing four months of divine performances, Federer decided that his body would be better served spurning the rigours of the red clay circuit. In hindsight, it was just as well as his great rival Rafael Nadal switched into beast mode, climaxing with a record 10th French Open.

“I wouldn’t have beaten Nadal in Paris,” Federer chuckled. “My big goal for the season is Wimbledon.”

In Stuttgart, where he played his first match since whipping Nadal in straight sets in Miami at the start of April, Federer took a stumbling first step in his build up. Against 39-year old Tommy Haas, Federer suffered only his second defeat of the year after succumbing to unheralded Russian Evgeny Donskoy in Dubai in February. In both these losses, Federer has held match points.

“It wasn’t like I lost 6-2, 6-2 and everything was terrible,” he reasoned later. “A comeback is never simple, especially on grass where margins are so slim.” Federer is in Halle this week, attempting to shake off the rust as the big W appears on the horizon.

Federer has won eight titles in the German city, more than at any other tournament. His exploits earlier in the year have ensured he has risen from 16 to 5 in the rankings and not surprisingly he gushes about “loving playing here.”

However, whether or not he produces an encore at Halle, Federer will arrive at Wimbledon later in the month as the leading contender to grab his eighth title and his first since 2012. Astute observers such as former champion Pat Cash believe that the rejuvenated Federer is playing the “almost best tennis of his career” and having “resurrected his backhand”, the 35-year old will be “unstoppable.”

In Cash’s view the only player capable of torpedoing Federer at Wimbledon will be twice champion Andy Murray. However, the world number one suffered a shock early defeat in the tuneup event at Queen’s club this week and admitted he will need to “improve dramatically” to defend his title. Novak Djokovic, who has now slipped to four, is showing little signs of emerging from his extended slump and has decided to play at Eastbourne next week in a break from his usual practice of not playing any tuneup events ahead of Wimbledon.

So, the enticing prospect of the year’s two standout players — Federer and Nadal — colliding on this, the most venerated of stages is a storyline to eagerly look forward to. The Spaniard has of course won twice at Wimbledon, one of those after an unforgettable final against Federer in 2008. However, since 2011 Nadal has been past the third round only once.

“It’s true that after 2012, what happened with my knees, it’s been tougher and tougher to compete on grass,” he explained. “But if I have pain on the knees, then I know from experience that it’s almost impossible because I need to feel strong, low and powerful legs. You need to play at a lower level.”

However, having just turned 30, Nadal is the healthiest he has been in recent years. He won in Paris without dropping a set and has zoomed back to two in the rankings. He’s lost just 6 of his 49 matches this year and three of those have come at the hands of Federer.

If the stars were to align and these modern-day gladiators were to clash at Wimbledon, it will be another grand moment in what has already been a scarcely believable tennis year.