Jul 5, 2008

Sport - The Nirmal Shekar Column

London: They come and go, day after day, year after year; some cocky, others almost worshipful, a few daring to believe the impossible, a good majority almost reverential and happily reconciled to their fate.
Names change. Mannerisms change. Years roll on. The climate, too, changes. Species go extinct. Everything changes.
But for one man, time stands still. And the ones who pay him a visit in his spiritual home — the Centre Court at the All England Lawn Tennis Club — the so-called rivals, are no more than pieces of statistics.
In the men’s singles semifinals of the 122nd Wimbledon championships, on Friday, Marat Safin was either No. 40 or No. 65, depending on whether you were referring to Roger Federer’s winning streak in SW 19 or his unbeaten run on grass.
For, the players that Federer is really competing against are now contented fathers living the good life, more concerned about their golf handicap rather than anything to do with tennis; some are even grandfathers, sitting by the fireplace and softly telling their grandchildren about their exploits at the greatest of tennis championships.
Pete Sampras, Bjorn Borg, Rod Laver — these are names draped in the golden glow of history, and these are the only ones that matter now to Federer after he played himself into his sixth straight final with a bloodless 6-3, 7-6(3), 6-4 victory over Safin.
In fact, Federer’s real opponent — the man with whom he shares the Wimbledon record of five straight titles — was sitting in the Royal Box on Friday.
When Borg was at this stage in his career, he would have hardly known that his next opponent would be the one that would stop his glorious run and, not much later, end his career too.
John Patrick McEnroe outplayed Borg in four sets in 1981, a year after losing a five-set epic to the great Swede. A left-hander in the form of his life stopping a serial-winner on the famous lawns.
Well, history could repeat itself on Sunday. And it is entirely up to Rafael Nadal, Federer’s only worthy opponent among the active players on grass, to make sure that it does.Substantial challenge
The four-time French champion’s game did not scale the dizzy heights that it did in the earlier round against Andy Murray. But Nadal still handled the surprisingly substantial challenge posed by the German journeyman Rainer Schuettler rather well for a 6-1, 7-6(3), 6-4 victory to set up a dream final against Federer for a third year in a row.
“Today wasn’t my best match,” admitted Nadal who, perhaps, underestimated his opponent. “I have to play my best tennis in the final (to beat Federer). That is the only way,” he said.
After being humiliated in the first set in just over 20 minutes, Schuettler broke Nadal’s serve with a forehand crosscourt pass in the third game of the second and found himself serving for the set in the 10th game.
But the pugilistic Spaniard broke back to 5-5, raced through the tie-break, and found an early break in the third.
As awe-inspiring as his Wimbledon record is, Federer, too, has often looked below his best in this championship. It is just that nobody has been good enough to take advantage of that.
If the champion is yet to lose a set this fortnight, then this has as much to do with his serving might as with the ineptitude of the opponents. After promising so much, Safin played a rather poor match on Friday.
Three years ago, in the semifinals of the Australian Open in Melbourne, the lofty Russian had beaten Federer in a five-set thriller, fighting off a matchpoint with a fantastic lob and then holding his nerve to go through.
Safin then outplayed Lleyton Hewitt to win his second Grand Slam title. On Friday, the Safin who played Federer bore little resemblance to that giant warrior as a competitor. He gave too much away too soon, losing his opening service game, a pair of nervous forehands sailing well beyond the lines.
Federer is such a great front-runner that when a tricky opponent shows such signs of weaknesses, he quickly drives through. The champion lost just four points on serve in the first set. And it wasn’t until midway in the second that Safin found his first opportunity to break Federer’s serve.
But on a day when he served well for the most part, hitting 14 aces, Federer quickly recovered to fight off two breakpoints in the fourth game. Safin himself saved one in the seventh to take the set into a tie-break.
It was here that the Russian surrendered in a hurry. Three backhand errors — all of them unforced — saw Federer go up 4-1. Less than three minutes on, Safin was staring down the barrel.
With Safin serving to stay in the match in the 10th game of the third set, Federer grabbed his first opportunity to close out the match, with a backhand crosscourt pass.
Asked what he would say to the critics who thought he was vulnerable this year, Federer said, “Don’t write me off quickly. This is my part of the season.”Paes-Dlouhy pair loses
India’s Leander Paes and his Czech partner Lukas Dlouhy lost a five-set thriller to the second seeded Daniel Nestor (Canada) and Nenad Zimonjic (Serbia) in the men’s doubles semifinals.
In a match that was suspended midway in the third set in gathering gloom on Thursday night, Paes and Dlouhy did well to battle back and take the fourth set after being routed in the third.
But Nestor and Zimonjic broke serve in the 13th game before the Canadian served out the match in the next for a 7-6(4), 4-6, 6-1, 4-6, 8-6 victory.

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