Federer, Nadal win to serve up dream final

July 08, 2006|By DIANE PUCIN | DIANE PUCIN,LOS ANGELES TIMES

WIMBLEDON, England -- Marcos Baghdatis hit a winner from his knees. He coaxed the crowd to its feet with a booming backhand and a pleading gesture for support. He hit a dozen drop shots that touched the grass and spun at crazy angles. But then Rafael Nadal returned half of them for winners.

And when the 2-hour, 26-minute Wimbledon men's semifinal match was over yesterday, Baghdatis could only put his arms around the sweaty shoulders of Nadal and say, "Good job."

For while Baghdatis' shot-making was often flamboyant and sometimes spectacular, Nadal was better. Nadal hit with such oomph that the dirt flew and Baghdatis fell three times while trying to stretch his body an extra foot. Finally it was too much and Nadal was the winner, 6-1, 7-5, 6-3.

Though he is seeded second, Nadal is still an unlikely finalist. His native surface is Spanish clay; he has twice won the French Open but had never been further at Wimbledon than the third round. Until now. And for his reward, Nadal will play three-time defending champion and top seed Roger Federer in tomorrow's final.

Federer, saying he played "flawless" tennis yesterday, needed only 77 minutes and allowed Jonas Bjorkman to win only four games on his way to a 6-2, 6-0, 6-2 victory.

Federer's victory was the most dominating victory in the men's semifinals since 1922, when the tournament began playing in its current format. Bjorkman, an unseeded 34-year-old from Sweden, had been given little chance to pull an upset and afterward said: "I just felt it was, in a way, nice to be around and see how someone can play the nearest to perfection you can play in tennis."

Yet as dominant as Federer has been - trying to become the first winner since Bjorn Borg to win the championship without losing a set, winning his 47th straight grass court match, becoming the only man since the Open era of tennis began to make five straight major tournament finals - he has a weak spot.

Nadal.

The Spaniard has a 6-1 career edge over Federer, 25. Federer's only win over Nadal came on hard courts in Miami in 2005. Nadal has beaten Federer twice on hard courts and four times on clay, including the finals of the 2006 French Open and the semifinals of the 2005 French Open. Federer is 55-0 against everyone else this year, 0-4 against Nadal.

With the Centre Court crowd aching for some competition after Federer's drubbing of Bjorkman, Nadal came out and won eight of the first nine points, broke Baghdatis' serve three times in the first set and seemed firmly in control. "I was a bit nervous," Baghdatis said. "I wasn't so confident on the court. I wasn't having fun."

Though Nadal is a year younger, he's been a pro two years longer than Baghdatis. So it took the Cypriot some time to get his Centre Court legs. And then the pair played the most thrilling set of tennis the tournament has seen.

Baghdatis saved three break points in the second game of the second set. Nadal saved one in the seventh with a monstrous serve followed by a decisive smash. When Baghdatis would hit a crackling crosscourt forehand winner and ask the crowd for support, Nadal would follow with a series of ground strokes of escalating fury until, finally, Baghdatis was left with no room. Then Nadal would pump his fist at Baghdatis' back.

In the 10th game, Baghdatis saved two break points, both of them Nadal set points, but in the 12th, Nadal broke through with a ferocious forehand winner. The second set had lasted 64 minutes and Baghdatis's head dropped.

"Is unbelievable results here, no?" Nadal said. He had knelt in disbelief after the final point. Nadal's career record on grass courts before this Wimbledon was 5-4. Now it's 11-4 and counting. He's trying to become the first man since Bjorn Borg in 1980 to win on clay at the French Open in June and grass at Wimbledon in July.

Making anyone over about 35 feel old, Nadal said he couldn't comment much on Borg because the only firsthand knowledge he had was watching Borg play on television replays during rain delays. "He won six times [at] Roland Garros, five times here. So that's unbelievable, no?"

But over the last 12 days here, Federer's opponents have felt the same about his play. "He just makes it look very simple," Bjorkman said.

The start of Federer's match was delayed more than two hours because of rain so Federer rushed through the first set in 27 minutes. He was nearly flawless in his choice of shots, thwarting Bjorkman's efforts to come to the net by hitting neatly-aimed passing shots past the slow-footed Swede.

For the match, Federer had only 13 unforced errors. Bjorkman never had a break point and was left with only one happy thought after his first Wimbledon semifinal appearance.

At the end, Bjorkman said, he asked Federer one question. How did Federer evaluate the match? "He said he felt good," Bjorkman said. "I just wanted to check he didn't have a bad day because that would have scared me a little bit."

Diane Pucin writes for the Los Angeles Times.

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