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Only Nadal stands in Federer's path to history

July 08, 2007|Chuck Culpepper | Special to The Times

WIMBLEDON, ENGLAND — Roger Federer reached the Wimbledon final Saturday at 1:55 p.m., and Rafael Nadal reached the final at 1:56 p.m., and there's a metaphor in there somewhere.

For although Federer trumps Nadal and the 6.6 billion other earthlings in the fine art of grass-court tennis, there's a sense that the rest of the planet finally has yielded one young man who's getting bigger in Federer's rearview mirror.

Nadal seems just behind the shoulder blade by now.

While Federer was wiping out Richard Gasquet, 7-5, 6-3, 6-4, Nadal achieved last-obstacle status by beating Novak Djokovic, who retired because of an infected foot blister with Nadal leading, 3-6, 6-1, 4-1.

Now only the 21-year-old Spaniard remains along Federer's zooming path to Bjorn Borg and the five straight Wimbledon titles he hoarded from 1976-1980, an open-era record Federer can equal today.

Borg, 51, might even feel familiar pangs today as he watches from the Royal Box, because the second straight Federer-Nadal Wimbledon final might show Nadal gaining on Federer the way John McEnroe once gained on Borg. Two straight finals means one grass apprenticeship has concluded.

"Lot of things change, no?" Nadal said. "Is another year. Well, this year I am playing so much better than last year, no? Sure, for all the reasons I am playing so much better. Sure, he's the favorite. No one have any doubt about this. But I going to try my best, no?"

On that, the world can count, with this just the latest tournament rife with cases of Nadal's blast-furnace effort. He withstood a third-round, five-set match that lasted five days and seven rain interruptions, then a fourth-round, two-set deficit.

Some of history's -- and Spain's -- clay-court maestros have treated Wimbledon with indifference, but Nadal has a striking lack of the indifference chromosome. Federer's 33 straight Wimbledon match victories with only six lost sets and zero five-set matches will run up against the first Spaniard to reach two Wimbledon finals.

"If I want to win here any day, I need to [continue] improving my serve, my volley, my slice, my aggressive game, everything," Nadal said. "Anyway, I play two finals. That's very good.... But I have to improve. I just have 21 years old one month ago."

That astronomical will already made a hairy occasion out of the 2006 final, which Federer won, 6-0, 7-6 (5), 6-7 (2), 6-3, after Nadal served for the second set even as a debutant.

"I felt he totally changed his game for last year's final," Federer said. "He played way more aggressive. He hit his backhand, his forehand. I was very surprised, you know, but handled it pretty well. So we'll see what kind of an approach he's going to come out with."

After taking divergent paths to the semifinals, their fates grew similar Saturday. Both played guys with frail feet. Both played guys who'd played protracted quarterfinals, Djokovic for 4 hours 59 minutes and five sets against Marcos Baghdatis, Gasquet for 3 hours 34 minutes and five sets against Andy Roddick.

Gasquet had to play at noon after finishing at 8:01 the previous night. Djokovic played after a bleeding foot infection kept him up all night and hollered for a pre-match withdrawal.

So rain and pain abetted another Federer-Nadal convergence four weeks after Nadal beat Federer in four sets at Roland Garros. "On clay I always feel like he is in the driver's seat," Federer said, "whereas on grass, I feel like I'm in the driver's seat."

It's just that today, the driver's seat might get crowded.



Today's matchup

Wimbledon men's singles final (6 a.m. PDT, Channel 4):

*--* ROGER FEDERER RAFAEL NADAL 25 Age 21 6 feet 1 Height 6 feet 1 177 Weight 188 1 Rank 2 48 Titles 22 8 Grass-court titles 0 10 Grand Slam titles 3 3 2007 titles 5 4-8 Head to head 8-4 522-133 Match record 234-58 35-5 2007 record 51-7 69-11 Grass-court record 19-6 5-0 2007 grass-court record 7-1 130-22 Record at Grand Slams 53-10 37-4 Record at Wimbledon 15-3 9-10 Five-set match record 9-2 196-108 Tiebreaker record 54-42 12-3 2007 tiebreaker record 9-6 3 Comebacks from 0-2 3


2007 Wimbledon:

*--* 6-0 Record 6-0 15-1 Sets 18-5 97-56 Games 123-82 9:02 Time on court 14:56 1:48 Avg. time on court 2:29 2-0 Tiebreaker record 2-1


Source: Associated Press

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