NADAL WAS BARELY 17 WHEN
he first cracked the top 50. That same year, he beat Federer for the first time. While still a teenager, he led Spain to the Davis Cup title, won the French Open, and settled comfortably into the top five. There’s a tendency in sports for the veterans to “big dog,” or haze, the ambitious newcomers. But in Nadal’s case, he was so darn respectful, no one did. Nadal was particularly reverent of Federer, calling him “numero uno” and seldom wasting an opportunity to declare his rival the best ever. “Really from the beginning, Rafa and I have had a good relationship,” says Federer. “There’s respect both ways -- how can you not respect what he’s doing on the court? But it’s also just that he’s a good guy.”

Federer is right. Consider that at Wimbledon last year, Nadal rented an apartment near the All England Club and walked to the court every day, sometimes waiting in the same security lines as ticket holders. This tennis player is no globe-trotting playboy. He claims to spend most nights watching movies or sparking up the PlayStation, and he’s had the same Majorcan girlfriend for years. Nor is he of the preppy-dweeb mold. As if Nadal’s muscles aren’t jarring enough, his trademark sleeveless shirts and shin-length clam diggers accentuate them.

Nadal doesn’t act like a typical tennis pro, and he doesn’t play like one either. Like most of the great ones, Nadal is an original; there’s nothing particularly derivative about his game, his background, or, for that matter, his looks. With his extreme Western grip, he coats his shots with massive amounts of topspin. His shots appear to be destined for the back wall but, thanks to the spin, they dive-bomb into the court at the last minute. Nadal complements his spin with exceptional power. And even his serve, generally the weakest element of his game, is a fearsome weapon, thanks in part to the angles that avail themselves to a lefthander. “That’s part of the problem,” says Jon Wertheim, a Sports Illustrated tennis writer whose new book, Strokes of Genius: Federer, Nadal, and the Greatest Match Ever Played, chronicles the Federer-Nadal rivalry. “There’s no real point of comparison with this guy, so no one knows how to play him.”

“Rafa is on track to be the greatest men’s clay-court player in history,” says Jim Courier, winner of four major tennis titles and now a television commentator. “And now that he has added two other majors to his French Open titles, he looks like the most likely player from his generation to have a career grand slam, which is saying something when Roger Federer is a contemporary. It’s an interesting question as to where he stands in men’s-tennis history. Rafa has dominated Federer -- the guy many have anointed as the greatest -- in the head-to-head category, but Federer has more majors and has been the more dominant player on tour to date. Still, Rafa has a lot more runway than Federer, so the jury is just being seated.”

Though the Spaniard has won the vast majority of the matches against Federer, the Federer-Nadal rivalry remains the most gripping in sports. Odds are good the two will meet again in the finals of Wimbledon, where they can try to top last year’s classic. Nadal has yet to watch a video of the match but says, “It was a long, great match, don’t get me wrong. But I have it in my head, so no need to watch it.” Like Federer, Nadal is playing against history now. Just don’t tell him that. “I don’t think like that,” he says. “My focus is to win the next match I play. The [history] will happen. Or maybe it won’t.”

Which is to say, he’ll do what he always does: He’ll give it his best and relish the battle. Then, win or lose, he’ll go back to Manacor and enjoy life, the same guy as ever.