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Men's game in rude health as Wimbledon looms

Nadal of Spain shakes hands with Federer of Switzerland after winning their men's final at the French Open tennis tournament at the Roland G
Nadal of Spain shakes hands with Federer of Switzerland after winning their men's final at the French Open tennis tournament at the Roland G

By Martyn Herman

LONDON (Reuters) - Rafa Nadal was basking in his record-equaling sixth French Open title as he arrived in rainy London on Monday for the grasscourt swing, still the leader of a golden generation for men's tennis.

The Spaniard's victory over great rival Roger Federer on Sunday was the perfect climax to a fortnight that reinforced the view that fans have never had it so good.

Nadal and Federer have won 26 grand slam titles between them and Sunday's final, while not quite an epic, showed there was plenty of mileage left in one of sport's greatest head-to-heads and it was not even the final most pundits expected.

Novak Djokovic arrived at Roland Garros seemingly unstoppable and poised to take over as world number one.

His defeat by Federer in a spectacular semi-final last Friday snapped the Serb's winning sequence in 2011 at 41 matches and means Djokovic will have to wait a little longer to knock Nadal off the top of the rankings.

Whoever owns the number one ranking, however, is almost incidental such is the quality at the top.

Briton Andy Murray, the world number four, keeps knocking on the door and Argentine Juan Martin del Potro, the 2009 U.S. Open champion, is approaching his best again after injury.

Former world number four Greg Rusedski, who now works as a TV pundit, says the strength at the top is staggering as shown by the leading four contesting the French Open semi-finals.

"It's the toughest era in men's tennis to win grand slams, there are very few who win majors," Briton Rusedski told Reuters on Monday at the start of the Queen's Club grasscourt championships.

"It was fantastic to see the top four coming to the semi-finals at the French Open as predicted.

"Everyone thought Djokovic was going to match John McEnroe's 42-win record and play Rafa in the final. But Federer played supremely well ... it looked like the old Roger Federer," added Rusedski.

INJURY SCARE

"Murray had a dream draw and had a little injury scare with the ankle but got through to the semis and pushed Rafa hard. Rafa wasn't playing too well at the beginning but saved his very best for the quarters, semis and the final."

Now the focus moves to Wimbledon later this month, with Rusedski tipping Nadal for the title.

"Nadal was happy it wasn't Djokovic in the French Open final because he has not figured out how to beat him," he said. "Physically Djokovic is the only player who can go toe to toe with Nadal and on the big points Nadal doesn't know which way to go.

"Against Federer, Nadal just hammers the backhand. But Djokovic stands on the baseline and bosses him."

As for Murray's chances of ending Britain's embarrassing wait for a men's grand slam champion, Rusedski said the Scot must learn from the top three and Del Potro.

"Del Potro goes after it big time but the thing for him is to stay healthy," he said. "Djokovic is now doing that and if Murray wants to step up that's what he needs to do.

"You look at Federer, Nadal, Djokovic they play the same way in every match. They don't change unless they are forced to. They have the same attitude and behavior every single day."

While the top men are household names, the women's game suffers by comparison -- even if Li Na's French title, the first grand slam singles win for China, will do wonders for the profile of the sport in Asia.

Few who do not follow tennis will have heard of world number one Caroline Wozniacki and Rusedski says it is time for the younger generation to step up and win major titles.

"(Francesca) Schiavone won the French last year when she was nearly 30, Li is 29 ... they both bring a lot to the sport but the women's game needs the youngsters to grab hold of it," said the Briton.

"You need new blood, the likes of (Victoria) Azarenka and (Petra) Kvitova to start changing things around. You need rivalries.

"Federer and Nadal have been in 19 finals. You need those recognizable rivalries like we had once with Chris Evert and Martina Navratilova."

(Editing by Tony Jimenez)

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