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Federer Continues to Rule His Turf

He makes it four consecutive Wimbledon titles with a 6-0, 7-6 (5), 6-7 (2), 6-3 victory over Nadal.

July 10, 2006|Diane Pucin | Times Staff Writer

WIMBLEDON, England — Roger Federer is chasing history and closing in quick. Rafael Nadal is chasing Federer.

Coming up next is the U.S. Open, tennis played on a surface a little slower and safer than the chaotic grass courts of Wimbledon that Federer so loves, a little faster and livelier than the sticky red clay of the French Open where Nadal is as happy as a little kid playing in sand.

Picking the favorite at the French Open was easy. Nadal won in 2005, he hadn't lost on clay in nearly two years and he won again. Picking the favorite at Wimbledon was easy too. Federer had won three straight times and hadn't lost on the grass here in four years. Picking a favorite at the U.S. Open might be more difficult.

Federer won his fourth consecutive Wimbledon title by beating Nadal on Sunday, 6-0, 7-6 (5), 6-7 (2), 6-3, in 2 hours 50 minutes. Already here at the world's most beloved tournament, Federer is being compared to the greats. He is the third person in the open era to win at least four straight Wimbledon titles -- Bjorn Borg, who won five straight from 1976 to 1980, and Pete Sampras, who won four straight from 1997 to 2000 -- were the others.

And Federer now has eight major titles. Sampras holds the record with 14. Federer will be 25 in August. Sampras had just turned 25 when he won his eighth Grand Slam title at the 1996 U.S. Open. This is a trajectory that will be followed and the record book will keep beckoning Federer.

But in the last two years a youngster, an engaging, precocious kid from Mallorca, keeps getting in Federer's way. Just as Sampras always said he enjoyed most of all playing his most talented rival, Andre Agassi, Federer and Nadal are enjoying the chance to push and poke each other.

Though he came to Sunday's final 0-4 against Nadal this year and 55-0 against everyone else, Federer never suggested he was anything but eager to face down Nadal's relentlessly hard baseline strokes. Those had seemed to tire Federer in the French Open, but the challenge exhilarated Federer this time.

"Now I like this rivalry again," Federer said and he smiled.

Until the first point was struck Sunday, Nadal was the uppity clay-court specialist making it to the Wimbledon finals, plotting a way to beat Federer.

There was Federer, who wears a specially designed blazer, cream-colored and classy, and looks as if he should have a cup of tea held between his fingers.

There was Federer, who had won 47 straight matches on grass courts, who was aiming to go without the loss of a set for seven straight matches here, for the first time since Borg in 1976.

And here came this youngster without a blazer or even sleeves on his shirt, pumping his fists, flexing his biceps, yelling at the crowd and pounding the ball from the baseline, yes, but also slugging 120-mph serves and coming to the net. What makes Nadal an intriguing foil to Federer is that he makes a plan to improve on all surfaces, even grass, where most of his Spanish compatriots don't bother.

From his best Wimbledon finish in only his third appearance, Nadal said he already has his eyes open.

"I know more the movements on grass," he said. "The way to serve and play more aggressive with my forehand than with my backhand. I need to change a little bit, play a little bit more slow, not with a lot of topspin. Sometimes you can play but not every ball."

The two players squinted to see the ball through swirling dirt Sunday afternoon and sometimes the gusty winds took balls away from the target and into the corner.

Sometimes Nadal was able to prick away at Federer's perfection here and there, with a running forehand down the line, with a leaping overhead smash followed by a bellow. Mostly not, though.

Federer did lose a set but not what mattered, the match.

Federer's on-court celebration was subdued. He did not run to the stands to hug his coach, Tony Roche, or girlfriend Mirka Vavrinec. He nodded toward them, then put on his blazer and bowed his head.

"You cannot, at that moment, believe you did it again," Federer said. "I came into this final with a lot of confidence, playing so well. I was just really anxious to go and hold that trophy again."

There will be other players in the U.S. Open, of course. Marcos Baghdatis, who lost to Federer in January's Australian Open, fought well against Nadal on Friday in the Wimbledon semifinals and said he took great inspiration from his best Wimbledon finish. And Baghdatis is only 21.

American James Blake takes great momentum from the noisy New York crowds and had his best major result there last year before he lost an emotional five-setter to Agassi in the quarterfinals. Agassi, 36, will play his farewell tournament and a year ago lost a four-set final to Federer.

But a rivalry is best left to two men, and Federer agrees.

"When we play so often in finals," the champion said, "I think it adds something to the game. He's up-and-coming. I used to be the youngster. Now I'm getting older, he's so young.

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