Again, It Boils Down to Federer and Nadal

By Liz Clarke
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, July 5, 2008

WIMBLEDON, England, July 4 -- Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal completed their march toward a third consecutive Wimbledon final Friday, handily defeating their respective semifinal opponents with the sharply contrasting styles that define the most compelling rivalry in men's tennis.

Federer, who is seeking his sixth consecutive Wimbledon title, extended his grass-court winning streak to 65 matches in breezing past one of the game's most dangerous players, Russia's Marat Safin, 6-3, 7-6 (7-3), 6-4.

The Swiss champion has yet to lose a set all tournament, and he was hardly boasting in proclaiming, "It was a perfect match for me."

Indeed, there was scant evidence that Federer had exerted himself at all. He fired 14 aces past the athletic Safin and never had his serve broken. His gold-trimmed Nike shoes didn't have a grass stain on them, and his tennis whites were spotless enough to wear to perform surgery.

"It was quite easy if you look at the score," Federer said.

Nadal strode off Centre Court roughly two hours later boasting a victory by a nearly identical score, having vanquished surprise semifinalist Rainer Schuettler, 6-1, 7-6 (7-3), 6-4.

Unlike Federer, Nadal looked as if he'd spent the afternoon wrestling an alligator on the patchy lawn. His left knee was bloody. His shins were tightly bound with tape, as were nearly every one of his fingers. The Spaniard's sneakers were worn to their nubby soles from all the pounding he had done, racing around the court.

If Federer is the sport's true artist, Nadal is its brawler. But he has been just short of brilliant in adapting his ferocious style of play to grass, adding a slice to his topspin-heavy repertoire, sharpening his volley and revamping his footwork.

Though his English is still evolving, Nadal has clearly mastered the verb "improve." And he has demonstrated as much on court the last two weeks.

He raced through the first set in 23 minutes, firing 12 winners without committing one unforced error.

Schuettler, 32, had played three hours on Thursday to complete his five-set quarterfinal, which had been halted the previous day for darkness. Nadal and the other semifinalists took a day's rest. While Schuettler said fatigue wasn't a factor, he wasn't remotely prepared for the pace or wild spin of Nadal's barrage of shots.

"I didn't know what to do," Schuettler confessed.

Schuettler acquitted himself better in the second and third sets. But Nadal closed the match with ease, serving a love game to seal his spot in Sunday's final.

Schuettler's challenges for the day didn't end there. As a friend and occasional practice partner of Federer's, as well as the latest victim of Nadal's, he was in great demand afterward as a prognosticator for the championship.

"Both are playing extremely well," Schuettler said. "For me, it's amazing how easy Roger makes it always look. He just seems like he's not even trying. And Rafa is the opposite. He's like so pumped up and always there. . . . I would like Roger to make the six in a row. . . . Rafa also, the way he has been playing, would deserve it."

The line of perfection has been drawn almost since their rivalry began. Nadal, 22, a native of Mallorca, has been the world's best on clay, winning his fourth consecutive French Open title (and third at Federer's expense) last month. And Federer, 26, has reigned supreme on grass.

But Nadal pushed Federer to five sets in last year's thrilling Wimbledon final. And his peers say Nadal has only gotten better. He is no longer adequate on grass, he is the world's second best, and closing fast. "He's playing incredibly well right now on any surface," Safin said of Nadal. "The way he's playing right now, it's just amazing."

While Nadal is riding a wave of confidence, having won his last 23 matches, he refuses to handicap his chances against Federer. He is careful to note that he has lost to Federer the last two times they have met at Wimbledon. Yes, he now has a greater variety of shots to try against the Swiss.

But Federer is the best player in the history of tennis, in Nadal's eyes. And for that, there is no game plan but continued improvement and all the effort he can muster.

"I only gonna try my best, no? Go on court, try to play my best tennis," Nadal said. "Later, if he play better than me, he beat me, just congratulate him like every year."

Watching from the Royal Box was Bjorn Borg, the last man to follow a championship on the clay courts of the French Open with a victory on Wimbledon's grass, in 1980.

Note: Larry Scott, chairman of the Women's Tennis Association, said that he had met Thursday with Wimbledon's chairman to discuss court assignments after several women's players voiced "significant concerns" about the tour's top players being sent to small, side courts for their fourth-round matches.

"All I'd say is we had a healthy exchange of views," Scott said.

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