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Much is at stake for Federer, Nadal

The Baltimore Sun

WIMBLEDON, England -- Roger and Rafa.

One more confrontation on the docket today for the two best tennis players on Earth, who have grandly slammed their way in the last month from Paris to London. And who is to say that this magnificent and still-evolving rivalry won't be revisited yet again at the U.S. Open toward the end of the summer.

They'll light up Wimbledon's Centre Court and there will be history at stake for both players.

For No. 1 seed Roger Federer, a fifth consecutive Wimbledon title, which would exceed Pete Sampras' best streak and tie Bjorn Borg's. For No. 2 Rafael Nadal, a chance to declare that, despite what the rankings will say, he has now usurped the title of best in the world with consecutive wins over his Swiss adversary on clay and grass.

Can it possibly happen? Can the man who has dominated tennis for four years in which he has been unbeatable on grass lose here?

The answer is probably not, but there is enough room for doubt to make this the most eagerly awaited of Federer's five Wimbledon championship matches.

"It's similar to last year," Federer said, as he tried to capture the feeling of reaching this final after surviving a rough opening set yesterday in a 7-5, 6-3, 6-4 win over worn-out No. 12 Richard Gasquet of France. "But maybe less dominating as I did last year. Still, I'm feeling good. I've put myself in the opportunity to win this tournament again."

While Federer had a six-day holiday because of a series of rain delays and a free pass he got into the quarters from injured Tommy Haas, Nadal's path to this final day has been laborious.

He endured seven rain-offs in a third-round win over Robin Soderling that took five days to complete and had to play two five-setters in a row on his trip to the final.

And he was fortunate to get a retirement yesterday from No. 4 Novak Djokovic, who quit with an infected blister on his foot.

"Today, three sets," Nadal said of his 3-6, 6-1, 4-1 victory. "I lose a set, but I just play three. Yes, I arrive good physically for tomorrow."

A year ago, Federer lost a 7-2 tiebreaker in the third set to Nadal in the final here, but there was never a sense he would lose the match.

He is not playing appreciably better this year and, in fact, looked quite shaky in his opening set with Gasquet. But Nadal, who was just learning to master the grass in 2006, is a much better player on this surface.

Nadal has lost five sets on his trip to the final, two each to Soderling and to Mikhail Youzhny and one to Djokovic. But he remains exactly the sort of player who has bewitched Federer in a handful of losses this season.

His speed to the corners and ability to turn a defensive situation into an offensive stroke frustrates the champion. His forehand is heavy and deep, difficult to control. And his serve is 100 percent better than two years ago.

Still, this is Federer he is playing - a man with 54 consecutive wins on grass.

Gasquet was strong early, but handed Federer the set by blowing an easy backhand volley into the net and, once in front, Federer got into fourth gear. That allowed him to speed away from his French opponent.

He may need a fifth today, however, in what may become one of the most important matches of his career.

Charles Bricker writes for the South Florida Sun-Sentinel.

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