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Four Different Men Are in Same Place

Unseeded Bjorkman meets No. 1 Federer, then Nadal and Baghdatis will entertain at Wimbledon.

July 07, 2006|Diane Pucin | Times Staff Writer

WIMBLEDON, England — Four men left, all so different.

There is 34-year-old Jonas Bjorkman, unseeded Swede, the sweet father who nearly gave up singles last year, trying to beat the unbeatable Roger Federer.

There is Marcos Baghdatis, the emotional Cypriot mugging for the crowd and dusting off his flashy forehand and between-the-legs magic. He'll play Rafael Nadal, the clay-trained Spaniard who is still learning to move on grass and dealing with unsubstantiated mumblings that he may be linked to a Madrid doping scandal.

Four intriguing men in today's Wimbledon semifinals.

Only Nadal had to play Thursday. He beat Jarkko Nieminen, 6-3, 6-4, 6-4, on Court 1 while the women's semifinals were taking place on Centre Court.

Nadal's quarterfinal match had been postponed by rain and darkness Wednesday, and Nadal said it was better to win fast Thursday. So he did. And then the 20-year-old lowered his eyes, raised his arms and walked away to prepare for his match against Baghdatis.

Baghdatis has struggled with injuries and, he said, "a sad spirit," since losing to Federer at the Australian Open in January. But now he is blowing kisses to his nervous mother, Andry, who hides her eyes at the tense parts of the match, and making his ponytail shake as he hits thunderous ground strokes that kick up the dirt.

Nadal and Baghdatis, 21, are first-time semifinalists here, and they will play second on Centre Court today.

First there will be Federer, who plays tennis so easily and accepts his role as big Wimbledon favorite as a joy. He is 24, ranked No. 1 in the world, going for a fourth straight title. He will surprise himself if he loses. He will surprise everybody if he loses. Especially today against Bjorkman, a popular doubles and mixed-doubles partner.

The main entertainment, though, is expected to be the second match.

Nadal won his second straight French Open title last month. Though he's seeded second here, Nadal himself predicted he was still a year or two away from knowing how to play on grass. "I'm still learning," he said before Wimbledon started.

And even as he has shown that a strong service return works well on grass as well as clay and that monstrous ground strokes can make up for nervous volleys, Nadal has had to deal with an off-court distraction that is making him angry.

Monday, Nadal's name surfaced in a French newspaper as possibly being part of the burgeoning doping scandal uncovered by a police raid in a Madrid lab in May. Although so far only cyclists have been publicly named, rumors surfaced that Nadal may be on the list. After denying the story earlier in the week, he was asked again Thursday.

Nadal said nothing. Instead, an interpreter answered: "He's already spoken about that. It's not going to affect him because he knows he's completely innocent." When a second question came about keeping his concentration, the interpreter answered again. "It hasn't been difficult because he's never taken anything in his life and he never will."

Nadal, who famously wears sleeveless shirts that show off bulging muscles in his upper arms, had personally answered all the previous questions, even the ones in English.

Baghdatis, seeded 18th, has been asked only to tell his happy story -- about leaving home as a 14-year-old to improve his tennis in France, and of how his parents have raised three sons who are all successful.

"Look at my mother's face," Baghdatis said. "Her happiness is mine."

Bjorkman, meanwhile, can't believe his happiness.

Fighting injuries and age, his singles ranking fell as low as No. 129 in August.

"I felt," he said, "maybe last year was going to be my last year of singles."

But while most of the other top players were winding down, Bjorkman won a first-year tournament in Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam, and made the quarterfinals of an event in Stockholm last fall. So he played on.

"But you could ask me two weeks ago and I would have been happy just to come through the first round," he said. "Now I'm sitting here, going to play the semis. It's just almost like a big shock."

The bigger shock would be if Bjorkman beat Federer for the first time.

Pete Sampras, who won a record 14 Grand Slam titles before retiring, was on a conference call Thursday to talk about his schedule of World TeamTennis play this summer. He was asked about Federer, of course, and couldn't offer enough praise.

"I think he can and will break every tennis record out there," Sampras said. "I think Roger is pretty much unbeatable on grass."

Around here, it's hard to find anyone to disagree.

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