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Federer and Nadal show how it's done

Elevating the game to near-art, the top-seeded player easily beats Ancic and No. 2 totally dismantles the British hope Murray.

July 03, 2008|Chuck Culpepper | Special to The Times

WIMBLEDON, England -- "Golden age," a cliche anyway, probably doesn't suffice. Men's tennis dwells in some sort of celestial phase of its history, the evidence aplenty Wednesday on Centre Court.

Anybody who happened to sit through the matches of No. 1 Roger Federer and No. 2 Rafael Nadal in the Wimbledon quarterfinals either spent the day in serial gasps of appreciation or has reached a level of jadedness that borders on hopelessness.

The finalists from 2006 and 2007 -- and very probably 2008 -- appeared one after the other, Federer and then Nadal, and they played some of the best tennis ever played. Their tennis looked very much like art, and their intent bore a striking resemblance to wrath.

In particular, Nadal's showing against Andy Murray, the British hope rumored to hold down No. 11 in the world, proved gorgeously ruthless to such degree that when Murray got to merely 15-30 on Nadal's serve in the third set, they should have stopped the match, brought in the royals, presented Murray with a wee trophy and played "God Save the Queen."

As for Federer, the incomparable tennis analyst Mary Carillo once noted that he "makes souffles out there," and he made souffles through the first set against Mario Ancic, which took merely 20 minutes and became probably Federer's best level of play in his vaguely subpar year.

Federer looked very much like Federer, and asked for rivals to that first set, Federer said, "Well, one match that comes to mind is probably the Hewitt final at the U.S. Open when I beat him 0-6-0. That was just right from the start until the very end."

His 6-1, 7-5, 6-4 victory included zero break-point chances for Ancic and reiterated the fact that people love to watch implausible shots such as running defensive forehand lobs that arch up over 6-foot-5 opponents and sing while they land barely inside the baseline.

It also extended a bevy of streaks: 64 straight grass-court matches, 39 straight Wimbledon matches (plus one walkover) and an astronomical 17 straight appearances in Grand Slam semifinals.

"Sure, I mean, I'll have a chance to win this tournament for the next five or 10 years, you know," he said audaciously. "Doesn't matter how I play from here. You know, I think my game's made for grass."

Even so, where once everyone thought Federer might threaten Nadal's rule on French clay, Nadal has evolved to pose an even more fearsome threat to Federer on Wimbledon grass.

For one thing, Nadal so comprehensively dismantled Murray that Murray got 10 total points in Nadal's 13 service games, and the match reached this stage: second set, Nadal serving at 5-2 and 40-love, Nadal having ripped off 13 points in a row earlier in the set, and Murray having mustered exactly zero points on Nadal's serve through three service games and nearly a fourth.

Just then, Nadal double-faulted, seemingly an act of kindness.

Question: "Is Nadal's ball the heaviest in tennis?"

Murray: "Yup."

Even when not serving, Nadal had ample other ways to win points in his 6-3, 6-2, 6-4 victory, storming all about the court to produce jaw-dropping shots that screamed down near lines and corners. He made Murray look like some greenhorn straggler just wandered down from Scotland.

"I felt rushed on every point," said Murray, who later added, "Definitely he's the second-best grass-court player behind Federer," and later added after that, "I think if he plays that well and returns like that, I think he's very close to being the favorite to win in the tournament."

That's quite a statement given that Federer is a five-time-defending champion, but Nadal's level seems unearthly. "Sure, the second half of the first set, and the second set especially, probably was my best match here," said Nadal, who has gone 17-2 in matches here since 2006.

Against Nadal's force, the crowd pretty much donned a collective muzzle and dined on morsels, creating swells of cheers when, say, Murray fended off a break point. Eventually, though, spectators seemed to suspend pining for a champion and resumed their born appreciation for tennis unimaginably sublime.



Wimbledon: Day 10

A look at who won, who lost and what's next at the All England Club. World rankings in parentheses:

Who won

Rafael Nadal, Spain (2) -- defeated Andy Murray, Britain (11), 6-3, 6-2, 6-4 -- Ernests Gulbis, the 19-year-old from Latvia, won a set against Nadal in the second round. Clearly, Gulbis is already one of the best players in the world.

Roger Federer, Switzerland (1) -- defeated Mario Ancic, Croatia (43), 6-1, 7-5, 6-4 -- The first set took barely 20 minutes and warranted classical music. The other stuff wasn't too bad.

Marat Safin, Russia (75) -- defeated Feliciano Lopez, Spain (35), 3-6, 7-6 (1), 7-5, 6-3 -- That Safin's resurgence has happened in a tournament he loathed qualifies as irony. Of course, he summarized it with trademark eloquence as, " . . . happens."

Who lost

Rain -- Butted in for two hours, only its second intrusion of the fortnight. Then receded in the chronic Wimbledon sunshine.

Next up: Women's semifinals

Venus Williams, United States (7) vs. Elena Dementieva, Russia (5) -- Dementieva, a two-time Grand Slam finalist in her first Wimbledon semifinal, often welcomes visits from demons when trying to close out matches. Williams, a four-time Wimbledon champion, often does not welcome visits from demons when trying to close out matches.

Serena Williams, United States (6) vs. Zheng Jie, China (133) -- You wonder if some of the millions of Chinese viewers might be thinking, "This little Wimbledon thing looks like a nice little tuneup for the Olympics."

-- Chuck Culpepper

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