tennis hails king rafa

PARIS - In Wimbledon's murky gloom on a Sunday in July, men's tennis hailed Spanish king Rafael Nadal, the muscleman from Mallorca who ended Roger Federer's five-year reign as the ruler of the All England Club.

PARIS - In Wimbledon's murky gloom on a Sunday in July, men's tennis hailed Spanish king Rafael Nadal, the muscleman from Mallorca who ended Roger Federer's five-year reign as the ruler of the All England Club.

The five-set thriller, already regarded as the greatest grand slam final of all time, proved to be one of many thrilling high points in a year to remember on the ATP Tour.

By the time 2008 came to a close, the 22-year-old Nadal, already with a fourth French Open safely tucked away, had claimed a 31st career title by taking Olympic gold and had deposed Federer as world number one.

Such was the influence of Nadal that he even helped Spain win the Davis Cup despite being absent from the final against Argentina because of a recurrence of his worrying knee injury.

"The absence of Nadal only united them all the more," said dismayed Argentine captain Alberto Mancini.

Nadal won eight titles in 2008 though, like his great rival Federer, he started slowly, losing to Jo-Wilfried Tsonga in the Australian Open semi-finals and waiting until Monte Carlo in April to break his duck for the year.

He then virtually swept through the claycourt season, adding Barcelona, Hamburg and another Roland Garros title (where he has never lost) to his CV before claiming his first grasscourt tournament at Queen's. That was just the appetiser to his stunning victory in the Wimbledon final, the first by a Spanish man to triumph in south-west London in over 40 years.

He also became only the third man to capture the French Open and Wimbledon titles in the same year as Federer's 65-match, six-year winning streak on grass ended abruptly.

"Wimbledon was the turning point - from then on I realised it (dethroning Federer as world number one after a record 237 weeks) was possible," said Nadal.

But his season was to end with a whimper as a knee injury saw him pull out of the Masters Cup in Shanghai as well as the Davis Cup final.

By his lofty standards, Federer endured a poor year.

Novak Djokovic took his Australian Open title as the Swiss struggled with glandular fever, not picking up a title until Estoril in April.

But he retained his US Open title in the wake of an emotional Olympic doubles gold for Switzerland. Like Nadal, Federer ended the year nursing aches and pains - in his case a bad back which contributed to a first round exit in Shanghai.

Federer, now with 57 career titles, was gracious when he was relegated to the number two spot.

"If ever somebody were to take it away from me, he would have to play an incredible tennis schedule, win the biggest tournaments, dominate the game basically," he said. "Rafa totally deserves it."

Federer and Nadal are set to remain dominant in 2009 but there is a host of young pretenders waiting to pounce.

World No 3 Djokovic is just 10 points behind Federer in the world rankings and is almost six years younger. The Serbian started the year with his first grand slam title in Australia and ended it with the Masters Cup in Shanghai.

Andy Murray, like Djokovic, is just 21. The Scotsman picked up five titles in 2008 and reached his first grand slam final at the US Open. Argentinian Juan Martin del Potro is only 20 but already the world number nine.

Despite the anticipation for 2009, one man who will not feature is Gustavo Kuerten, the former world number one and triple French Open champion. The popular Brazilian said an emotional farewell after a first round loss in Paris. He had been crippled by a hip injury in recent seasons, a legacy of the relentless demands made by the tour.

With the bodies of Nadal and Federer under particular scrutiny in 2009, those demands are likely to become even more testing, a controversial new-look schedule not helping matters. - Sapa-AFP

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