Balance of clay power still with Nadal

Perhaps defending French Open champion Roger Federer knew he was in no real condition to win Rome, which is why prior to the tournament, he conceded what a lot of folks think. That is that despite his ultra-impressive title run in Paris run last year, Rafael Nadal would have won his fifth straight crown there had he not been hobbled and upset earlier in the tournament.

"I would love to say I'm the big favorite but I don't think it's quite right, even though I won the French Open last year," said Federer, who was stunned 2-6, 6-1, 7-5 by Ernests Gulbis in the opening round of the Rome Masters on Tuesday. "Rafa has just proven again in Monaco how tough he is. He's been on an absolute tear on clay for the last five years. He's hardly lost any matches. You can almost count those on one hand, and he's only lost one match at the French Open. So I would think he's still the favorite."

Federer is quite right to say that Nadal has been on a tear on clay since 2005 (he's won 25 clay court titles since then), but he's also torn himself up in the process, hence his decision this year to skip his beloved tournament in Barcelona after he stomped the field in Monte Carlo.

Nadal's uncle and coach Toni said this week that Rafa will no longer play one grueling tournament after the next -- not after their experience last year, when after winning Monte Carlo, Barcelona and Rome, Nadal went into Madrid with his knees aching, managed to scrape his way to the final but then took his first loss to Federer on dirt in two years. At Roland Garros, he was largely a shadow of his former self, unable to get off the mark quickly, sustain himself in long points or produce enough power, which resulted in his loss to Robin Soderling.

With his knees damaged, Nadal was unable to defend his Wimbledon crown and sputtered most of the rest of the season. Prior to Monte Carlo, he played quite well at times this year, but he got nicked up again and had been missing the innate confidence that comes with consistently being on court and being tested.

"I suppose we'll play a little less," Toni Nadal told Reuters. "(The decision to miss Barcelona) was also related to the need to prepare for the upcoming season, which is hard, and avoid having problems with Wimbledon and Roland Garros. The important thing for Rafa is not the ranking, but to be in good shape for every tournament he takes part in, to know that he has the chance to win the tournaments he takes part in."

With his defeat to Gulbis, Australian Open champion Federer has lost before the quarterfinals in three straight ATP tournaments for the first time since 2002. He also fell to Marcos Baghdatis at Indian Wells and Tomas Berdych at Miami. He certainly won't panic as he's been through mini-slumps before and ended up shining at the Grand Slams, but he can't be too pleased that he's now lost three tight three-setters (both loses to Baghdatis and Berdych were in third-set tiebreakers) and he let Gulbis off the hook after the 21-year-old Latvian choked six match points and allowed him to even the third set at 5-5. Then, with Gulbis on the ropes, Federer played an atrocious and sloppy service game and was broken easily. Finally, the big hitting Gulbis served it out.

"It's probably good for me -- it's a wake-up call," Federer said. "I have to do the hard yards now, win ugly, starting with Estoril. I'm still in the doubles and that helps. Every match helps, it's only training that's tough but now I'm going to work like mad, I'll be out on the clay every day. Roland Garros may be soon to you but for me it's a long way away."

With a record 16 Grand Slam titles and the full knowledge of how to properly prepare for the majors, doubting Federer's ability to pull himself up by the bootstraps by the time the French rolls around in late May would be foolhardy. But given that Nadal has beaten him like a tattered drum the four times they faced each other there, there are few reasons to think that the Swiss has developed the weaponry to contend with the Spaniard's meat and potatoes game on clay.

Federer has certainly improved his flat and topspin backhands over the past two years and is much more comfortable going down the line now -- which is a mandatory shot for any great clay courter -- but outside of his win in Madrid, when Nadal was clearly hurting, Federer has yet to show that he can handle Nadal's heavy forehand or hooking slice serve into that side.

With the way that Nadal played in Monte Carlo, stomping a trio of excellent countrymen -- Juan Carlos Ferrero, David Ferrer and Fernando Verdasco -- in succession, if he enters Paris healthy, he'll be more hungry and better equipped to win the tournament than anyone else. Not only is he much more aggressive off the ground and is a better volleyer than he was when he first won the title in 2005, but he wants to prove that last year's loss was a fluke.

Just listen to Verdasco, another left-hander with final four potential in Paris.

"Nadal is a tough proposition on clay and he's one or maybe even two levels above everyone else," Verdasco said.

Fed Cup decisions for U.S.

Serena and Venus Williams haven't played the Fed Cup since 2007 and declined an invite to play in the United States' 3-2 win over Russia last weekend. But U.S. Fed Cup captain Mary Joe Fernandez says that she might ask them to rejoin the team in November at home against Italy, even though they've never played for her.

While it's highly unlikely that they both will say yes, what if the sky falls and they do? Who does Fernandez push off the team? Her new Fed Cup heroine, Bethanie Mattek-Sands, who won two matches on the final day against Russia? Her gritty up-and-comer, 18-year-old Melanie Oudin, who will be the foundation of the team for years to come? Doubles standout Liezel Huber, who has answered the call every time when she's been asked and has won three deciding fifth rubbers for her?

Both Mattek-Sands and Huber have expressed disappointment with the Williamses' refusal to play and should one of them be bumped off the team for the final when they have put in so much hard work this year, the team chemistry could be spoiled.

Since it's doubtful that both Williamses will play, maybe Fernandez can get away with selecting one, likely Venus, who has relationships with the aforementioned three, while Serena apparently does not. Then it will just be a matter of selecting who will play singles, and by the time November rolls around, it will be clear who is good form and who isn't.

But even though both Mattek-Sands and Oudin deserve shots at playing singles, Fernandez knows that if she names them above a Williams sister, she'll be taking a risk against defending champion Italy as Flavia Pennetta and Francesca Schiavone are both excellent players who on good days can take down both Oudin and Mattek-Sands, even on a fast indoor hardcourt. So if Fernandez is unable to recruit Venus or Serena, they will go into the tie as underdogs and that's not a position that the U.S. wants to be when they are in search of their first title since 2000.

Fernandez may praise her current committed group up and down, but in the end, if Serena or Venus want to play, she'll likely opt to put success ahead of her emotional ties to the other players.

"Our main goal is to win," she said.