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Nadal has closed gap on Federer

July 06, 2008|Chuck Culpepper | Special to The Times

WIMBLEDON, ENGLAND — In the pugnacious tradition of Borg-McEnroe and Sampras-Agassi, here again comes Federer-Nadal, in one sense already more dynamic than those other duos.

When No. 1-for-231-weeks Roger Federer and No. 2-for-154-weeks Rafael Nadal walk through the green door and out to Centre Court today (6 a.m., PDT), it will mark their sixth meeting in a Grand Slam final, surpassing Sampras-Agassi and Ivan Lendl vs. Mats Wilander for most meetings by any two male humans.

"Honestly, it's quite hard for me to judge at the moment how this rivalry will be looked on, you know, later on," Federer said, but one thing already rings certain: Take six meetings, cram them all combustibly into merely three consecutive Junes and Julys -- unlike the Sampras-Agassi series that spanned 12 years -- and the numerical possibilities just spew out.

They're the first co-finalists for three years running since Stefan Edberg and Boris Becker in 1988-90. Federer has become the first man since Bjorn Borg in 1976-81 to appear in six consecutive Wimbledon finals, and if he wins he'll surpass Borg, who stopped at five because of then-No. 2 John McEnroe, the loquacious commentator who hit practice balls Friday morning with reigning No. 2 Nadal. Federer also would have a 41st straight win at Wimbledon and a 66th straight win on grass.

"Sometimes you distract watching his game, no?" Nadal said in his charmingly broken English.

If Nadal wins, he'll become the first man since Borg in 1980 to win both the French Open and Wimbledon in one year and the first male Spanish Wimbledon titlist since Manolo Santana in 1966 (and the second overall). He'll also complete a stunning grass-court ascent that has seen him charging like mad toward Federer's gate, with an unexpected appearance in the final in 2006, a four-set loss, and an I-mean-business appearance in the final in 2007, a five-set loss that nearly tilted opposite.

As Federer has used his elan and his artistry to tear through this draw in 18 sets, losing two service games, Nadal has rampaged around the courts just about redefining tennis in 19 sets, losing four service games. Both decidedly have outstripped all 126 other players, not that Federer has seen much of Nadal given his multiple press obligations. "I know him plenty," Federer said, and knew plenty of him June 8, when Nadal clobbered Federer, 6-1, 6-3, 6-0, in the French Open final.

"He's made me improve, you know, just the approach, you know, playing against him," said Federer, a 12-time Grand Slam champion, later adding, "I definitely feel like he's made me more tough, that's for sure."

Nadal shuns any talk of any impending regime change at Wimbledon, and pretty much dismissed a question about a newspaper poll in which 70% of respondents said he'd win with, "The whole important thing is what's happen tomorrow, no?"

The other whole important thing is how a four-time French Open champion who quietly left Wimbledon in the second round in 2005 has surged to a final this appetizing and this loaded with unbeatability.

"Well, I don't think I can improve on grass," Nadal said. "I think I improve my game in the rest of the surfaces, and my improves on the rest of the surfaces can adapt these improves on grass. But on grass I can't improve, because I only play two tournaments in all the year, no?"

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