Tuesday 24 April 2018

Nadal poised to confirm his dominance

Mark Hodgkinson

For Middle England, Wimbledon's core constituency, worrying about the state of Rafael Nadal's knees is a bit like worrying about house prices: it never turns out to be quite as bad as you had imagined.

When did you fear most for Nadal? Was it when he summered "away from everything" last year, when his parents were having difficulties with their marriage and he could not play at Wimbledon because of his knees? Or perhaps it was when he failed to win a set in his three round-robin matches last November at the end-of-season tournament on the Greenwich Peninsula?

Or maybe it was when he arrived on the French Riviera this April, for the tournament at the Monte Carlo Country Club, having not won a title for almost a year? Or was it earlier in these championships, when Nadal was concerned about his body?

Today, Nadal could confirm his dominance of men's tennis by beating Tomas Berdych, the son of a train driver and a Grand Slam final debutant, on Wimbledon's Centre Court.

For the first time since 2002, Roger Federer will not feature and Nadal has only previously lost in Grand Slam finals when he has played the Swiss on this lawn.

For the past three months, starting with that tournament on the Cote d'Azur, Nadal has been showing more teeth, performing his victory celebrations of biting into trophies, and now he is just three sets away from chewing on that golden Wimbledon cup again.

Nadal has won 30 of his last 31 matches. From Monaco to Roland Garros, Nadal played a perfect clay-court season, going undefeated, including regaining his French Open title, and this afternoon he could be presented with a second replica Wimbledon trophy.

Whatever happens, tomorrow Federer will be ranked outside the top two for the first time since '03, and it looks as though Nadal, the world No 1, has every chance of finishing this season at the top of that list.

Federer's run of successive Wimbledon finals was broken by Berdych's killer forehand in the last eight; Nadal has now reached the final on his last four visits to the All-England Club. He lost to Federer in '06 and '07, and then beat Federer the following summer, and today, for the first time, he plays someone other than the Swiss.

When Nadal became the champion two summers ago, with a five-set victory over Federer that finished in near-darkness, he was the first man since Bjorn Borg in 1980 to be the French Open and Wimbledon champion in the same season.

Last year, Nadal's knees flared up, and he lost early in the French Open and withdrew from Wimbledon, and it was Federer who won on both sides of the Channel. Nadal's despondency was such that he hardly watched Wimbledon last summer; the only match he sat through in its entirety was the final, Federer's defeat of Andy Roddick.

"That moment wasn't an easy moment for me, with the knees and a little bit of the problems at home, too," he recalled. This afternoon Nadal could do that cross-Channel double again.

Some players travel the world telling every crowd in every city that 'this is my favourite tournament', but it does feel as though Nadal genuinely prefers Wimbledon above any other, even though, in addition to his one previous Grand Slam title here, he has five French Open trophies and one from the Australian Open.

Nadal, who will walk to Centre Court from his rented house, has had a much better second week than first week. Twice in the opening week, he had to come from two sets to one down, as well as disclosing that he was "scared" about one of his knees, and he was fined for receiving illegal coaching from his uncle, Toni.

He has been terrific in the second half of this tournament, with fine victories over Paul-Henri Mathieu and Robin Soderling, and then beating Andy Murray in straight sets.

At this season's French Open, Berdych demonstrated in his fourth-round match with Andy Murray that he views a tennis racket as a piece of military hardware, and he went on to reach his first Grand Slam semi-final, which he lost to Soderling. And now he is into his first Grand Slam final.

Nadal has won his last six matches, his last 14 sets, against the Czech, with three of those sets coming in their only previous meeting at Wimbledon, in the '07 quarter-finals. Few expect Berdych to beat Nadal. But, then again, few expected Berdych to beat Federer.

Nadal v Berdych,

BBC1, 2.0

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