Nadal continues trek toward Federer’s record 16 major titles

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WIMBLEDON, England — Having won four of the past five Grand Slam tournaments and 10 in all, Rafael Nadal was asked on the eve of Wimbledon about quickly closing in on Roger Federer’s record of 16.

Nadal cut in to clarify.

“Very close? No. I am very far,” Nadal said Sunday. “Six is a lot.”

Perhaps. Still, the 25-year-old Spaniard is looking more and more like someone who will be able to challenge, if not surpass, whatever Federer’s final tally is. As long as a couple of other guys don’t get in the way, that is.

For years, Federer and Nadal were the men to beat at major tournaments. These days, they’re joined at what is a competitive and compelling top of the game by a pair of 24-year-olds, Novak Djokovic and Andy Murray.

That Big Four filled out the semifinals at the French Open two weeks ago, and most everyone expects them to be the final four standing in a fortnight’s time at Wimbledon, where play begins Monday with Nadal as the defending champion.

“That’s maybe something that’s a bit different than maybe in the past, where maybe one of the top four guys wouldn’t feel so comfortable on grass,” said Federer, a six-time winner at Wimbledon. “But this year, it seems like all of us are, which is a good thing.”

Nadal quickly earned the sobriquet “King of Clay” for his excellence on that surface, particularly at Roland Garros, where he beat Federer on June 5 for a sixth championship there.

Now Nadal seeks a third title on the grass of the All England Club, where he hasn’t lost to anyone other than Federer since 2005.

“I love to play on grass. I love to play in this fabulous place,” the top-seeded Nadal said. “In the beginning of my career, everybody talked a lot that with my style of game, [it’s] going to be always very difficult to play very well here. But I worked a lot and I put all my best in every practice.”

As the returning men’s champion, Nadal will play the first match on Centre Court on Day 1, against Michael Russell of the United States. That’s an honor that’s often been accorded Federer, but he lost in the quarterfinals a year ago, is seeded third this year, and must wait until Tuesday to get started against Mikhail Kukushkin.

The second-seeded Djokovic, whose 43-match winning streak ended with a loss to Federer in Paris, also is scheduled to begin Tuesday, while No. 4 Murray is slated to play Daniel Gimeno-Traver of Spain on Centre Court on Monday. The forecast calls for - surprise! - rain, but at the very least, matches in the main stadium shouldn’t be affected because of the retractable roof in use since 2009.

Other men on Monday’s slate include 2003 U.S. Open champion and three-time Wimbledon runner-up Andy Roddick, 2010 finalist Tomas Berdych and 10th-seeded Mardy Fish. Women scheduled to play include five-time Wimbledon champion Venus Williams, 2010 French Open winner Francesca Schiavone, and 2010 Wimbledon finalist Vera Zvonareva.

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