PARIS -- Only in this parallel universe, the Kingdom of Rafael Nadal where opponents quickly turn into yard mulch, could the inarguably great Roger Federer wind up sounding delusional.
No one expected premature concession as Federer aims for his third consecutive French Open final on Sunday against Nadal, and by no means did Federer broach disrespect, but his statements after his semifinal on Friday evening acknowledged neither the outright Nadal clay dynasty of the moment nor Nadal's improvement this year from merely unbeatable to pretty much celestial.
Unforced errors of judgment included:
"It looks good for Sunday," and then, "I feel I have the right tactics, I have the right game, and I have the fitness to beat him," and then, "We are testing each other, you know, over and over . . . I believe very strongly that this is my year."
If anything, the numbers and the frightful sheen of Nadal's play suggest that Federer's chances have waned to their four-year nadir. Seldom has such a runaway No. 1 been such a straightaway underdog.
Federer almost forged a fifth set in the 2006 final but couldn't, then went one-for-17 on break-point chances in the 2007 final but never wreaked doubt in the decisive third and fourth sets. But in this French Open, Nadal has broken from mere supremacy and floated into some sort of Bjorn Borg realm.
He has extended his Roland Garros lifetime record to 27-0. He has become the first player since Ivan Lendl in 1984-87 to reach four Roland Garros finals in a row. He has won all 18 sets. He has lost only 37 games. He has improved to 114-2 on clay in the last four years, and 40-0 in best-of-five-set matches.
He also has reduced such clay-court maestros as Fernando Verdasco and Nicolas Almagro to racket rubble. And in Friday's semifinal, he spent the first two sets treating No. 3-ranked Australian Open champion Novak Djokovic like some sort of stuffed animal in a retriever's mouth.
"The level of the two first sets was very good today," Nadal said. "Almost perfect. . . . Best match at Roland Garros so far, no?"
That's something, given that no one has taken Nadal to even five sets here across four years. Meanwhile, Federer has looked less sure than before, losing three sets and weathering a taut, four-set, 6-2, 5-7, 6-3, 7-5 semifinal with the 21-year-old French prodigy Gael Monfils.
In this atmosphere where lurks an unyielding king, Djokovic can certify his own excellence just by creating a smidgen of doubt against Nadal.
In what qualified as a stunner around here these days, Djokovic resuscitated himself from a 6-4, 6-2, 3-0 deficit to wring a set point and reach a tiebreaker. He won neither, but that alone might net him a trophy now. The latter part of the third set and the tiebreaker qualified as sublime tennis and left the audience riveted.
Nadal won, of course, and will play against Federer, one of two to beat him on clay the last four years, but only in a best-of-three at Hamburg in 2007.
"I think maybe three years ago when I played him the first time, you know, in the semifinal here, I just, I guess I came in and I thought I could blow him off the court," Federer said. "I didn't expect myself to win necessarily, but I really felt like I had the game, you know, by just playing my style of game, I could win. I was very close. I was up a break in the fourth to push it to the fifth set, you know."
While that's not exactly, "Oh, I blew two match points," Federer has a broader array by now, he said, even as Nadal seems more impossible. Such has been his autocratic rule here that when asked about the last time he felt nervous at Roland Garros, Nadal's response was not quick.
"I am thinking," he said. "Well, a little bit against Mathieu first set, 2006 maybe it was." (That's a third-round win in four sets against Frenchman Paul-Henri Mathieu.) "Against Grosjean with the problem with the crowd, 2005 I think. One set all, break up, everything under control, and later was tough." (That's a fourth-round win in four sets over Frenchman Sebastian Grosjean.)
"No more times, I think."
That's no more times against anyone, including you-know-who.
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TODAY'S WOMEN'S FRENCH OPEN FINAL
Dinara Safina, Russia (14) vs. Ana Ivanovic, Serbia (2). Safina was 14 when her older brother Marat Safin won the 2000 U.S. Open. She lived in Spain and followed the match through friends' phone calls since she couldn't get the match on TV. But she fell asleep before her brother finished off Pete Sampras. Now he's a maybe to attend her first Grand Slam final as she tries to beat her seventh top-10 opponent since May 11, and her third No. 1 foe, once you count Justine Henin and Maria Sharapova, then consider that Ivanovic will rise to the summit in the rankings next week after playing her third Grand Slam final and seeking her first Grand Slam title.
-- Chuck Culpepper