American marketing men, never slow to exercise a touch of hyperbole, have used the talents of the famous boxing promoter Don King to label the 128th US Open championship, which begin today, as the "Grapple in the Apple". The "Rumble in the Jungle" and the "Thrilla in Manila", in which Muhammad Ali overcame George Foreman and Joe Frazier in two wonderful world heavyweight battles, were staged by King in the 1970s.
However, there is no guarantee that the two latest prize fighters will even be stepping into the ring together at the Flushing Meadows on Sept 7. In one corner of this captivating showdown is Rafael Nadal, the new world No 1 and the newly crowned Olympic champion, who has been in devastating form. His intended "challenger" is the defending champion and four-time US winner, Roger Federer. The Swiss maestro who, until this year, was the imperious ruler of the tennis world and stood head and shoulders above those aspiring to knock him off his perch.
Now Federer is at the crossroads of a career which saw him top the rankings for 237 weeks before Nadal's long wait to overtake him finally ended this month. Federer's lack of success in any of the major events of 2008 - he has won only two titles in the comparatively minor events at Estoril and Halle, unlike his usual haul of grand slam honours - has enabled Nadal to bridge the rankings gap much sooner than envisaged.
Apart from Roland Garros, the Swiss has also failed to respond to the threat to his supremacy by losing his Wimbledon title to Nadal in an epic final in July. As Nadal has been endorsing the back-to-back grand slam triumphs with two more titles, Federer has suffered embarrassingly early defeats in the recent Masters Series events in Toronto and Cincinnati and was a surprise loser to the American James Blake in the quarter-finals of the Olympics.
The Swiss arrives in New York to occupy an unaccustomed position at the bottom of the draw knowing that the two men he defeated in the last two finals here - the home favourite Andy Roddick and the brilliant young Serbian Novak Djokovic - are blocking his path to the intended re-match with Nadal. Federer maintains, however, that the pressure under which he played as numero uno for the last four years, will now be switched to the broad shoulders of Nadal, who has beaten him in the last four finals.
The Spaniard, who has been seeded second at the last 10 grand slams, has the seventh-seeded Argentine David Nalbandian in his half and is likely to face either Spain's David Ferrer or Britain's Andy Murray in the semi-finals. Murray, who has risen to a career high sixth spot in the world after winning the recent Cincinnati Masters, will not be daunted to face Nadal for his first grand slam final despite having lost to him at Wimbledon and Toronto.
The US Open is Murray's favourite grand slam and if he reproduces the kind of performances he has displayed so far on the North American hardcourt circuit, then the "Grapple in the Apple" may yet have a Scotland-Serbia flavour rather than its intended Spanish-Swiss mix. firstname.lastname@example.org