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Steve Flink: Bring on Wimbledon

6/9/2008 7:27:00 PM

by Steve Flink

Since 1965, I have been to every Wimbledon with the exception of the 1974-76 events. To me, it is the highlight of the year in tennis, the major I value the highest, a tournament that transcends the sport. Wimbledon is so steeped in tradition, so powerful in the hearts and minds of the general public, so overwhelmingly important to the players, that it stands alone as the showpiece of tennis. I am heading over to London for the fortnight in a few days, hoping and fully expecting that this year at the All England Club will be better than anything we have seen there for a very long time.

The battle for grass court supremacy among the men is going to be absolutely gripping. Roger Federer--- fresh from an impressive tournament win in Halle where he did not drop a set or lose his serve the entire week—will be totally committed to ruling on the lawns for the sixth consecutive year. Australian Open champion Novak Djokovic, who has displayed admirable consistency all year long on every surface, will step out onto the grass believing that he is going to win another major. Andy Roddick---- runner-up to Federer in 2003 and 2004 and a perennial threat on the grass--- will have his heart set on capturing his first Grand Slam championship since the U.S. Open of 2003.

But the man who may well be destined to prevail at the game's shrine is none other than Rafael Nadal. The 22-year-old Spaniard has been exploring new boundaries in his game week after week on a brilliant European campaign. He won three out of the four clay court events he played en route to Roland Garros, including two Masters Series triumphs. Then, of course, Nadal swept through the field to win his fourth French Open in a row, becoming the first man since Bjorn Borg in 1980 to take Roland Garros without the loss of a set.

Nadal went to Queen's Club in London last week simply hoping he could sharpen his grass court game and get some valuable match play on that surface in preparation for Wimbledon. He did more, much more, than that. Adapting rapidly and convincingly to the grass, Nadal closed out the week by holding back the towering Ivo Karlovic 6-7 (5), 7-6 (5), 7-6 (4) in the quarters, ousting Roddick 7-5, 6-4 in the semifinals, and then stopping a determined Djokovic 7-6 (6), 7-5 in the championship match. Not since the gifted and versatile Rumanian Ilie Nastase in 1973 had anyone come through at Roland Garros and Queen's in the same year. The last time a Spanish man was victorious at a grass court tournament was when Andres Gimeno did it in 1972.

Be that as it may, what matters here is that Nadal is probably the man to beat at Wimbledon. He did, after all, reach the final the last two years. In 2006, Federer beat him in four sets. But a year ago, the Spaniard stretched the Swiss maestro to his outer limits before losing 7-6 (7), 4-6, 7-6 (3), 2-6, 6-2 in a stirring match. On that memorable occasion, Nadal lost his opening service game of that contest and then was not broken again until the middle of the fifth set. Federer was better under pressure in the two tie-breaks, but Nadal came on strong in the fourth, and then had Federer down 15-40 twice (at 1-1 and 2-2) in the crucial early stages of the fifth set.

Federer worked his way out of that dangerous predicament, playing and serving magnificently to close out the account. But Nadal demonstrated unequivocally that he could hold his own on grass with his great rival. At the time, it was a heartbreaking defeat for him. He was never the same player for the rest of 2007--- physically, mentally, and emotionally. That loss seemed to cause lingering damage to Nadal's psyche.

But now he is playing the finest tennis of his life. No one was really surprised by his clay court heroics, but very few believed he could topple Federer by the unimaginable scores of 6-1, 6-3, 6-0 in the Roland Garros final. To leave the slow red clay of Roland Garros and thrive on the grass at Queen's the following week was a clear indication that Nadal has moved to another level. He was bombarded by the towering Karlovic, who released 35 aces and never lost his serve in the match. Nadal stood up boldly to that stern challenge, never lost his own serve, and played two solid tie-breaks in the second and third sets to move past a daunting, 6'10" opponent.

In his semifinal with Roddick, Nadal carved out one break in each set, sedulously protected his own serve, and returned beautifully throughout the battle. To be sure, Roddick was rusty after being out with a shoulder injury since his semifinal loss in Rome. The four-time Queen's champion was short of match play and not long on confidence as a result. But Nadal was first rate.

That set the stage for Nadal's meeting with Djokovic, who had lost a grand total of five games in four sets while dispatching Lleyton Hewitt and David Nalbandian, who met in the Wimbledon final of 2002. Djokovic started magnificently against Nadal. He led 3-0 with a break point for 4-0, but Nadal took advantage of a mediocre service return from Djokovic and laced a forehand winner crosscourt. With typical gumption, he got back to 3-3. They stayed on serve into the tie-break.

At 6-5 in that critical sequence, Djokovic served at set point. The two players had an exhilarating 18 stroke rally, with Djokovic thumping his forehand crosscourt time and again, challenging Nadal on the backhand side. Nadal kept probing, inching forward until he got the opening to nail an inside-out forehand winner. After that clutch piece of business, Nadal closed out the set 8-6 in the tie-break. But he had much work left to do.

In the second set, a resolute Djokovic rallied from 0-2 down to take a 5-4 lead. He served for the set in the tenth game but was stymied by the backcourt aggression of the Spaniard. Three times in that pivotal game, Djokovic stood two points away from winning the set. Nadal prevented Djokovic from ever reaching set point with a brilliant backhand defensive lob, a forehand volley winner set up by a superb approach shot, and a scorching crosscourt backhand which gave Nadal the chance to unleash a penetrating crosscourt forehand to provoke and errant backhand from Djokovic. That was the essential Nadal: unswerving when it counted, unwilling to concede any set no matter how much he is up against.

Nadal closed out the contest on a run of three consecutive games. Most impressive of all, Nadal was hugging the baseline whenever possible, taking the ball early, and exploiting his devastating forehand to the hilt. He looked entirely comfortable on the grass, even more so than at Wimbledon the last two years.

A year ago, Nadal had some anxious moments on the way to the Wimbledon final. He had a five day ordeal with Robin Soldering which he finally won in five tumultuous sets. He was down two sets to love against Mikhail Youzhny before escaping with another five set win. And he was having a hard time against a weary Djokovic in the semifinals, losing the first set before coming back to win the second and lead 4-1 in the third. Djokovic retired at that stage.

I don't expect Nadal to stroll into the final this year, but he is playing with more conviction and a good deal more aggression than in the past. He has the capacity now to take matters more into his own hands. And he will have newfound respect in the Wimbledon locker room. The players know that he is better equipped now than ever before to take that crown. They realize that his serve has improved immensely, know that he is earning many more free points off that delivery, realize that he is mixing it up and serving more frequently into the body to keep his opponents guessing.

So I really like his chances at the All England Club. Having said that, I believe Federer will be as motivated to win this major as he has been for any big event in a long time. His tournament win in Halle was only his second in 10 appearances this year. Since he captured his first Grand Slam event in 2003 at Wimbledon, he has not been beaten in three consecutive majors, and he will be determined to prevent that from happening this time around at the single most prestigious tournament in the game. He has now won 59 straight grass court matches, and feels thoroughly at home on the fabled Centre Court. He would love nothing more than to set a modern record by winning a sixth consecutive crown.

In the final analysis, everything points to a third straight Federer-Nadal showdown on the British lawns. Federer has built up quite an aura around himself these past five years at Wimbledon, and he remains the most natural and complete grass court player. Nadal is by far the hottest player in the world. He must surely have a deeper inner conviction that he can come through this year. He is playing the best tennis of anyone in the world right now.

Djokovic, of course, is not to be taken lightly. Now that he has one major in his collection, his priorities have changed, and he comes into the big ones thinking only of holding the trophy. His game translates well to every surface. I think he will probably lose to either Federer or Nadal in the semifinals, but not without putting up a serious fight. And candidate No. 4 for me is Roddick, who knows the grass court game so well. He has beaten each member of the "Big Three" once this year, and he ended an agonizing 11 match losing streak against Federer in Miami. All of that gives the 25-year-old American cause for optimism. Nadal, Federer, Djokovic and Roddick; one of these four prodigious men will be the champion this year at Wimbledon this year, and no one else.

In the end, I believe Rafael Nadal is going to win this tournament of all tournaments, toppling the mighty Federer in four sets. At the moment, the wind is at his back. His sense of self has never been larger. His time is now.

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