Nadal rounds out men's semifinals

No. 2 seed advances to play Baghdatis

Federer, Bjorkman face off in other match today

July 07, 2006|By DIANE PUCIN | DIANE PUCIN,LOS ANGELES TIMES

WIMBLEDON, England -- Four men left, all so different.

There is Jonas Bjorkman, unseeded Swede, the 34-year-old sweet father who nearly gave up singles last year, trying to beat the unbeatable Roger Federer.

There is Marcos Baghdatis, the emotional Cypriot mugging for the crowd and dusting off his flashy forehand and between-the-legs magic. He'll play Rafael Nadal, the clay-trained Spaniard who is still learning to move on grass and dealing with unsubstantiated mumblings that he may be linked to a Madrid doping scandal.

Four intriguing men in today's Wimbledon semifinals.

Only Nadal had to play yesterday. He beat Jarkko Nieminen, 6-3, 6-4, 6-4, on Court One while the women's semifinals were taking place on Centre Court.

Nadal's quarterfinal match had been postponed by rain and darkness Wednesday and Nadal said it was better to win fast yesterday. So he did. And then the 20-year-old lowered his eyes, raised his arms and walked away to prepare for his match against Baghdatis.

Baghdatis has struggled with injuries and, he said, "a sad spirit," since losing to Federer at the Australian Open in January. But now he is blowing kisses to his nervous mother, Andry, who hides her eyes at the tense parts of the match, and making his ponytail shake as he hits thunderous ground strokes that kick up the dirt.

Nadal and Baghdatis, 21, are both first-time semifinalists here and they will play second on Centre Court today.

First there will be Federer, who plays tennis so easily and accepts his role as big Wimbledon favorite as a joy. He is 24, ranked No. 1 in the world, going for a fourth straight title. He will surprise himself if he loses. He will surprise everybody if he loses. Especially today against Bjorkman, a popular doubles and mixed-doubles partner.

The main entertainment, though, is expected to be the second match.

Nadal won his second straight French Open title last month. Though he's seeded second here, Nadal himself predicted he was still a year or two away from knowing how to play on grass. "I'm still learning," he said before Wimbledon started.

And even as he's shown a strong service return works well on grass as well as clay and that monstrous ground strokes can make up for nervous volleys, Nadal has had to deal with an off-court distraction that is making him angry.

On Monday, Nadal's name surfaced in a French newspaper as possibly being part of the burgeoning doping scandal uncovered by a police raid in a Madrid lab in May. While so far only cyclists have been publicly named, rumors surfaced that Nadal, who famously wears sleeveless shirts that show off bulging muscles in his upper arms, might be on the list.

Baghdatis, seeded 18th, has only been asked to tell his happy story - about leaving home as a 14-year-old to improve his tennis in France, and of how his parents have raised three sons who are all successful.

Bjorkman, meanwhile, can't believe his happiness.

Fighting injuries and age, his singles ranking fell as low as No. 129 last August.

"I felt," he said, "maybe last year was going to be my last year of singles."

But while most of the other top players were winding down, Bjorkman won a first-year tournament in Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam, and made the quarterfinals of an event in Stockholm last fall. So he played on.

"But you could ask me two weeks ago and I would have been happy just to come through the first round," he said. "Now I'm sitting here, going to play the semis. It's just almost like a big shock."

The bigger shock would be if Bjorkman beat Federer for the first time in his career.

Diane Pucin writes for the Los Angeles Times.

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