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Rafael Nadal moves relentlessly toward dethroning tennis’s reigning king

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“That Wimbledon final either brought fans out of dormancy or made new fans for the game,” says long-time tennis analyst Bud Collins. “I know I hear people talking about it, who first saw it on television, and I think it enlivened the sport tremendously, especially here at the US Open, where everyone wants to see them thrown together again. When you’re 4-1/2 years on top of the world, everybody’s looking for you to fall off. And now he’s fallen off, and it makes for great drama.”

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It’s a drama that many feel has been lacking in the men’s game for the past decade, especially since the golden era of the 1970s and early 1980s, when tennis was almost as popular as baseball and football. John McEnroe and Jimmy Connors, who despised each other, threw regular tantrums on the court; Björn Borg dominated Wimbledon and Roland Garros; and even tennis chic defined a certain sense of style at roller rinks and discos.

Many compare this year’s Wimbledon final with the era-defining finals back then. In 1980, Borg won his fifth straight Wimbledon title, defeating first-time finalist McEnroe in an epic match long considered the greatest ever played – until this year’s. In 1981, McEnroe finally defeated Borg, ending both his record streak and dominance. After that defeat, Borg never won a Wimbledon title again, and McEnroe began his own run as the No. 1 player in the world.

Of course, unlike McEnroe, Nadal had already won four straight French Open titles, including three straight over Federer. But there have been other Spanish clay-court masters – a surface that has stymied greats like Connors, McEnroe, Becker, and Sampras, none of whom could ever win there – and Rafa was simply the best of them. And while he had pressed Federer in a thrilling five-set final at Wimbledon in 2007, most tennis observers believed Federer would continue to add to his 12 Grand Slam trophies on surfaces other than clay and win his sixth straight.

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