Illustration: Edd Aragon
ROGER Federer and Rafael Nadal have created such fascination during their parallel careers. How does the Swiss turn a backhand into a symphony? If a nuclear bomb exploded on the first day at Roland Garros, would the Spaniard still be scurrying along the baseline on the final Sunday like some post-apocalyptic cockroach?
But, after the pair tuned up for the French Open in Rome with their 30th encounter - a one-sided victory for the clay king Nadal - a compelling question endures. Even at a time when Federer and Nadal are, with Novak Djokovic and Andy Murray, merely members of a nylon-string quartet, who is the best? Or, to rephrase the query for those Federer fans not convinced by a lopsided 20-10 record in Nadal's favour, can you be better than someone who is so often better than you?
Let's keep the stats geeks happy by crunching the usual numbers.
Yes, Nadal's career advantage over Federer is heavily augmented by his dominance on clay, where it is 13-2 to Nadal. Which gives Federer a slender 8-7 lead on all other surfaces. Not to mention 17 grand slam titles to Nadal's 11.
All hail King Roger? Don't arrange the coronation just yet.
That Federer and Nadal have played on clay far more than any other surface emphasises two factors. Nadal's dominance means he progressed to the end of the tournament more often, making encounters with Federer more likely. But it also reflects the importance of clay - perhaps even its pre-eminence - in a now Euro-centric sport.
In that regard, you might argue, it is Federer's victories on grass that are - pun alert - against the grain. That his seven Wimbledon titles were won mostly against opponents whose main experience on grass was at an out-of-season after-party. In winning seven French Open titles, Nadal suppressed a battalion of European and South American claycourt warriors.
But - and here is where your head starts rotating as much as when you watch them play - discounting Federer's Wimbledon victories would be like discounting Tiger Woods' British Open victories. Sure, they might have won on quirky courses with crazy bumps and hollows and cavernous bunkers that are no more like the average USPGA Tour course than your local putt-putt. But that is the game in its oldest and most pure form.
Then again, Nadal has beaten Federer in a Wimbledon final. Federer has never beaten Nadal in a French Open final.
So do we go to the relatively neutral battleground of hardcourt to settle this? No, we go there to make things even more confusing because the record stands at 7-7.
Which allows us to put down the record books and do a gut check.
The aesthetic argument heavily favours Federer. The word ''sublime'' might have been invented for the manner in which he caresses the ball. Google the phrase ''hard grunt'', and an image of Nadal hammering another merciless top-spin forehand appears - at least if you have the parental-block working. When Federer picks the strings of his racquet he looks like Eric Clapton. When Nadal picks at his underwear he looks like a bored schoolboy.
Federer wins the public relations battle. Perhaps because his mastery of English - even that part of the language that allows him to, without false modesty, extol his own virtues - and global outlook often charms. Perhaps because Nadal has, on occasions, seemed more feisty and confrontational. Still haven't made up your mind? Ask an expert. Few have studied them more closely than Sports Illustrated senior writer L. Jon Wertheim, who wrote the book Strokes of Genius: Federer, Nadal and the Greatest Match Ever Played based around their 2008 Wimbledon final.
''I usually punt and say 'Wait until Nadal's career is over before we take inventory,'' Wertheim says. ''But if both quit tomorrow, I think Federer still wins (albeit in five sets) in the court of public opinion/history. Slams are the coins of the realm and Federer still has a healthy lead. He's spent far more time at No.1, had more variety in terms of surface success (Nadal, of course, has won the French more than the other three majors combined) and, even Nadal would agree that aesthetically Federer wins the style points.
''Losing 20/30 matches to your purported rival is, of course, not a great look. But Federer actually has a better head-to-head record in the non-clay matches. I would also contend that Nadal's game matches up particularly well against Federer, as does his superior competitive zeal. But a lousy record against one opponent doesn't offset all that Federer has achieved. No?''
Me? Federer or Nadal? Nadal or Federer? It is a question without a definitive answer. And what is sport good for if not creating those?