- The Washington Times - Sunday, July 4, 2004

WIMBLEDON, England — Forget the improbable angles and impossible spins, the shots that seem pulled from a top hat. When Roger Federer works his racket-waving magic, the most telling result is laughter, head-shaking, slack-jawed, exasperated giggles.

And that’s from his opponents.

“He hits shots that not a lot of other people even think of hitting,” Andy Roddick said. “He just does everything well.”

If there’s a foregone conclusion in this soggy Wimbledon — outside of the Fleet Street tabs running endless photos of Maria Sharapova’s rear end — it’s that Federer will end up holding the title trophy. The defending champion did nothing to disabuse that notion yesterday, sweeping past France’s Sebastien Grosjean 6-2, 6-3, 7-6 (6) in a rain-delayed semifinal on Centre Court.

“I’m very thrilled,” said Federer, the tournament’s top seed. “I’m really looking forward to this, this next match, the chance to defend my title.”

Federer faces No.2 seed Andy Roddick, a 6-4, 4-6, 7-5, 7-5 winner over Croatia’s Mario Ancic, in today’s final, which matches the ATP Tour’s top two players and the reigning Australian and U.S. Open champions.

Federer, 22, swamped the 21-year-old Roddick in last year’s Wimbledon semifinals, winning in straight sets.

“I’m excited,” Roddick said. “I want to match up against him. We’re both going to come out firing. I can’t wait. He’s the best.”

Tell that to Grosjean. Against almost any other opponent, the 26-year-old Frenchman would have been the artiste , a player whose creative all-court game helped him reach last year’s semis. But with Federer on the other side of the net, Grosjean was less Picasso than Thomas Kinkade.

Time and again, Grosjean struck a pitch-perfect approach shot, only to watch Federer whip a sharp-angled forehand pass. Federer’s tricky spins left Grosjean perplexed and wrong-footed; on one Federer return, Grosjean leaped backward, then lunged forward in midair, vainly flailing at the ball.

After breaking Grosjean with a slingshot backhand to lead 4-3 in Friday’s second set, Federer sat in his changeover chair, calmly adjusting his signature headband. Grosjean rose and walked to the baseline, biting his lip while shaking his head.

Heading into the match, Grosjean hadn’t dropped a single set in the tournament. Federer broke him five times.

“[Federer’s] playing very well, for sure,” Grosjean said. “So he’s maybe [the tournament] favorite.”

A rain delay gave Grosjean a much-needed overnight respite — and when the match resumed yesterday afternoon, he pushed Federer to a third set tiebreak. Federer smacked a sloppy forehand error to trail 4-0, then reeled off four minibreaks before closing the match with an overhead smash.

Federer lifted his arms, slightly pumping his fist. He met Grosjean at the net, offering a sheepish smile and a sympathetic pat on the back, the “What-can-you-do?” gesture of an older brother who has just trounced his younger sibling.

“It’s still very difficult for me to understand why and how come I’m so dominant this year,” said Federer, who hit 49 winners to Grosjean’s 23. “What counts is to be again in the same position to win the tournament.”

To do so, he will have to blunt Roddick, who overcame both the weather and a game opponent in Ancic, a hard-serving 20-year-old Croat and the last man to beat Federer on grass.

Friday’s rain delay left Roddick facing a break point on his first serve in yesterday’s continuation of the match; Ancic took advantage with an overhead smash, then held serve to win the second set.

A backhand pass that clipped the net cord allowed Roddick to break back in the third. In the fourth, Roddick saved a break point with an ace. Two games later, Ancic double-faulted on a break point of his own, giving Roddick a 6-5 lead.

Roddick sealed the match with a forehand winner, flashing a relieved smile. Next comes Federer, whose flowing style contrasts sharply with Roddick’s straight-ahead power game.

“He’s more flash, feel, artistry,” Roddick said. “The one advantage I have over him is just hitting the crap out of the ball. I mean, that’s pretty much what I have to do. I’m going to have to try to play to my strengths.”

Those strengths may not be enough. The last time the top two players met in the Wimbledon final, hard-charging Jimmy Connors upset tortured genius John McEnroe. But that was 22 years ago; in the here and now, Roddick is 21-1 on grass over the last two years.

The only man to beat him? Guess who. Asked the other day how he would slow Federer, BBC commentator and former Wimbledon champ Boris Becker offered an honest — if impractical — suggestion.

“I would have taken him out the night before, get him drunk, maybe approach his girlfriend or something,” he said. “Tennis-wise, he’s untouchable.” Becker, of course, was laughing.

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