WE HAVE A RIVALRY!!!! Finally, thankfully, we have a rivalry on the ATP tour.

Tennis sicko that I am, I rolled out of bed and checked the tennis scores before I even had time for my first yawn and there it was: Roger Federer, a 2-6, 6-2, 6-0 winner over Rafael Nadal in the Masters Series Hamburg final.

Yep, that score is right. Federer beat Nadal for the first time on a clay court, ended Nadal’s record winning streak on clay at 81 matches, and pulled off the most surprising match of the year. That is if you don’t count his losses to Guillermo Canas and Filippo Volandri.

How did Federer do it? Somehow he found his forehand and his serve and his nerve all at once. If you remember last year’s French Open final against Nadal, Federer inexplicably decided to stay back on the baseline and incurred the derision of Mats Wilander, who famously questioned his cojones.

If staying back was Tony Roche’s idea, that may explain why he was fired as Federer’s coach last week. That may also explain why Federer gets the sometimes overused label tennis genius. He’s not only the number one ranked player in the world but he can strategize better than one of the best coaches. Left to his own devices, Federer managed to strike just the right balance of aggression: he served and volleyed, attacked Nadal’s second serve, and repeatedly hit wide to Nadal’s forehand then came into the net.

After losing his serve twice in the first set, things were looking bad for Federer. At 1-1 in the second set, Nadal ran from one side of the court to the other and curled a beautiful passing shot around Federer. After a mishit and a backhand error, Federer was down two more break points and I was ready to write the same boring column: Fed still in a funk.

Then his game turned on. A beautiful scoop volley, a forehand approach winner, one more volley and he had game point. Three straight trips to the net and the rout, believe it or not, was on. Nadal won exactly one more game. Federer had found his marvelous forehand and he hit it as hard as he could pinning Nadal behind the baseline and forcing him into short shots which Federer ate up at the net.

The funk had lifted. The switch he couldn’t find against Canas in Miami and the forehand he lost playing Volandri in Rome were back. He could elevate his game when he needed it and he needed it badly to have any chance at winning the French Open and getting a calendar grand slam.

As for Nadal, he was probably tired. He barely beat Lleyton Hewitt in the semifinals and he usually skips this tournament to rest for the French Open – he hasn’t played here since 2003. He was already angry at ATP CEO Etienne de Villiers for planning to reduce the number of Masters clay court events from three to two and now he’s probably even angrier. Nadal surely would not have played Hamburg if he hadn’t protested so loudly about de Villiers’ plans to downgrade the Masters Series status of both Monte Carlo and Hamburg. How could he put up a stink then not turn up?

If it was one too many tournaments for Nadal, it was just right for Federer. I don’t think anyone expected him to right himself emotionally in the space of one week. Here we all thought the pressure of the long run at the top had finally gotten to him and, instead, it was his relationship with Roche.

The French Open all of a sudden becomes ten times more exciting. Nadal will be fighting for his third straight title and Federer is desperate for the chance to win all four slams. Tighten your seat belts and consider this one last question:

Now that Federer has beaten Nadal on clay, who’ll win the French Open?

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