ABU DHABI // Tennis fans in the UAE are a privileged lot. On the first day of the year they got the match the world dreams of.
Little wonder the stands at the Zayed Sport City's Tennis Complex were filled to capacity as Rafael Nadal, the reigning No 1 of men's tennis, took on Roger Federer, the man that he deposed, for US$250,000 (Dh 918,250) and early bragging rights for the year at the Mubadala World Tennis Championship last night.
As expected, it was an engrossing affair, with both Nadal and Federer battling like gladiators and playing true to their reputations of being two of the greatest champions that the game has seen.
There were many astonishing shots played and some remarkable rallies to keep the fans on the edge of their seats, but sadly, for the neutrals at least, there could be just one winner in the end.
And it was Nadal, the defending champion, with the Spaniard prevailing 7-6 (4), 7-6 (3) in the 110-minute duel that did not see a single service break.
"I never lost my serve, but I still lost the tournament," Federer said. "It's kind of tough. Tennis can be tough sometimes. Rafael and myself must have played so many times and so many times it has come down to a few shots here and there and he is an amazing shot-maker. Me as well but today he got the better of me.
"I though it was a great match and it has been a pleasure being here in Abu Dhabi for the third consecutive year. I really enjoyed myself here again.
"I am already excited about 2011. I think we are going to have a good season. And people like Rafael will push me to become a better player, too. I think we will have a good season, both of us. I am looking forward to Qatar and then the Australian Open."
Nadal will also be heading for Doha and he is expecting another tough examination from Federer should they meet again next week.
"For both of us, these are the first matches of the season," said the Spaniard. "So it is special for us. This is the perfect place to start the season here in Abu Dhabi. So thank you very much everybody for the support. The crowd was fantastic, so happy New Year everybody.
"I finished the last season playing really well. I lost against Roger in the finals of London [World Tour Finals]. I think he played amazing in that tournament, but I think I still played really well in London.
"For sure it will be a very difficult season. Roger and all the other rivals are going to be there and it's going to be really difficult. I wish Roger all the best for 2011 and also the rest of the players who have played here. It is going to be tight season I think.
"The Australian Open is still far away. Right now I am focused on trying to play a good tournament in Doha next week and after that we will see what happens in Australia. Doha is going to be a really difficult tournament and I have to arrive there playing my best tennis like here."
Nadal and Federer have met each other 22 times on the ATP Tour since 2004 and 18 of those matches have been tournaments finals. That statistic is a huge indicator of their domination on the circuit. They have split 21 of the last 23 grand slams, and you can only pity the others who toil through the draw and then run into Nadal or Federer in the semi-finals or final.
"It is extremely difficult," said Tomas Berdych, the world No 6 who has lost nine of his 12 matches against Federer and has an identical record against Nadal. "The first thing is you have to get to the final or semi-final to play one of those guys. Maybe, you have to beat both of them.
"You work hard to get through the draw and then you have to play Rafa or Roger. That is why it doesn't happen too often when you find other winners at grand slams.
"Having said that, I think it's great that our sports has two such great players like them at the same time. In the past, it was kind of just one name."
Robin Soderling, who defeated Federer in the Abu Dhabi semi-final last year but lost this time around, has just one win in 16 matches against Federer on the ATP Tour: the 2010 French Open quarter-final. Against Nadal, the world No 5 has won two of the seven matches on the Tour.
The Swede, however, believes the gulf between the top two and the rest is not as big as it might seem.
"I never felt that the gap is really big," he said.
"Of course, they are No 1 and 2 in the world and they are really great players, but on any given day I think a lot of players can actually beat them, which is really nice."
However, if Federer and Nadal's performance last night could be used as a gauge, there still is a massive gulf of class between them and the rest.
There are tennis matches and then there are Nadal versus Federer classics.