ROME // The latest instalment in the Michael Phelps-Milorad Cavic rivalry might not be as thrilling as the last two meetings.
Cavic underwent surgery for a herniated disk last July and only began diving in off the starting blocks two months ago.
"I don't think I can realistically try to beat Phelps. I'm not ready and I'm not in the best shape I've been in," Cavic said after competing in the Seven Hills meet over the weekend.
At the world championships in Shanghai, Phelps and Cavic will probably meet in the 100-metre butterfly final on July 30.
Cavic posed the closest threat to Phelps's record eight gold medals at the 2008 Beijing Olympics.
The American-born Serb lost by a mere hundredth of a second, a finish so close the Serbs filed a protest and swimming's governing body had to review the tape down to the 10-thousandth of a second.
The rematch at the 2009 worlds in Rome was just as dramatic, with both swimmers trading barbs in the press beforehand and Phelps winning with a devastating comeback in the final 50 metres to break the world record set by Cavic in the semi-finals a day earlier. So is Cavic just throwing out more trash talk?
"This is no joke," he said. "I lost five months. There's no way to come back from this in a short period. I've only been training for six months. I've not raced in two years and I do not believe myself to be ready this summer. Next summer I think I'll be competitive."
At one point last year, Cavic wondered whether he would ever be able to swim again.
"There were days when I couldn't get out of bed alone. I couldn't tie my shoe at all and I could not wipe my leg with my towel after showering," he said. "It was a very, very bad time in my life and a lot of time was lost."
Cavic won the 100m fly in 52.40secs on Friday, one hundredth faster than Phelps's win in California the same day.
Phelps is expecting a competitive race in Shanghai. "He's somebody that I'm looking forward to getting back in the pool against. It's going to be a close race," Phelps said.
How about Phelps's recent dip in form? "You can never underestimate that guy," Cavic said. "He's the best.
The real Phelps-Cavic clash might not come until next year's London Olympics."
"He can beat Phelps in London," said Andrea Di Nino, Cavic's coach. "We're aiming for a medal in Shanghai but we're going to London to win. London is the only race that really counts for us."
After the London Games, Cavic plans to retire - just like Phelps.
"I'll be 28," Cavic said. "I did this sport for 19 years and I think it's enough."