- The Washington Times - Monday, July 10, 2006

WIMBLEDON, England — When Roger Federer stepped onto Centre Court, dressed for success in his creamy white, custom-made blazer, one thought was prominent as he prepared to face Rafael Nadal in the Wimbledon final:

He absolutely had to beat this guy — after all, how could Federer make the case he’s the best tennis player ever if he’s not even the best of 2006?

Untouchable early, steady enough late, the top-ranked Federer did indeed vanquish his nemesis, No. 2 Nadal, 6-0, 7-6 (5), 6-7 (2), 6-3 yesterday for a fourth consecutive Wimbledon championship and eighth Grand Slam title.

Federer is 55-0 this year when he plays anyone other than Nadal. But the Swiss star entered yesterday with a 1-6 career mark against Nadal, 0-4 this season, when all four losses came in tournament finals, including at last month’s French Open.

“I’m very well aware of how important this match was for me. If I lose, obviously, it’s a hard blow for me — he wins French, Wimbledon back-to-back,” Federer said. “It’s important for me to win a final against him, for a change, and beat him, for a change. At Wimbledon, I knew it was going to be the place for me to do it the easiest way.”

The keys to the grass-court kingdom have been passed from Bjorn Borg to Pete Sampras to Federer, who joins that duo as the only men since World War I to win this Grand Slam title four straight years.

Federer sure strode in as if he owned the place, wearing the jacket his sponsor made especially for him. It features a crest on the breast pocket with three rackets to represent his previous three Wimbledon titles; Federer wants a new one now and will donate the old blazer to the Wimbledon Lawn Tennis Museum.

He kept the blazer on for the coin toss, standing with a hand in his pocket while Nadal bounced on the balls of his feet, raring to go. The 20-year-old Spaniard is the very picture of perpetual motion from the moment he sets foot on court until the final point, using his powerful legs to get to shots others can’t and his big biceps to bludgeon balls.

On clay, where the ball stays in the air longer, Nadal forces foes to hit extra shots over and over to win a point. That’s part of the reason he has won a record 60 consecutive matches on the red surface. On grass, though, balls skid and footwork is different, and while Nadal might stretch a point by a shot or two, even he couldn’t make Federer work too hard.

Nadal held serve 80 consecutive times from the second round through the semifinals, but it took Federer all of one game to break, blocking back a 128 mph serve and eventually flicking a running forehand winner that caught a corner to make it 2-0.

Federer broke Nadal again in the match’s fourth and sixth games, closing a masterful first set with a cross-court backhand passing shot.

The message in Federer’s play was unmistakable: This is a whole new ballgame, kid.

It was the first time in 131 matches, dating to February 2005, that the relentless Nadal was shut out in a set. He did, however, drop the first set of the French Open final 6-1 before roaring back.

As they sat there yesterday, both might have had that June day on their minds.

Actually, Nadal said, “I was thinking: ‘Win one game.’ ”

He did so right away, breaking Federer to start the second set with the help of two of Nadal’s seven passing winners. Nadal then held at love as Federer made three errors with his backhand, the shot that betrayed him repeatedly at Roland Garros, one after another flying off the frame.

But when Nadal served for the second set at 5-4, he faltered, missing three forehands and double-faulting.

“I played bad,” Nadal said, thinking back on that key game. “In this moment, maybe I lost the match, no?”

The set went to a tiebreaker, in which Federer was better, including one chopped forehand on a full sprint to somehow extend the point, catching Nadal so much by surprise that he sailed a forehand wide.

Nadal is nothing if not a fighter, though, and he matched Federer stroke-for-stroke in the riveting third set. Both men played serve-and-volley tennis. Both kicked up chalk with pinpoint shots. Both held serve into another tiebreaker. This time, Nadal came through, whipping one backhand passing winner he celebrated with a leaping uppercut and smacking one forehand return winner on a line that he punctuated with a scream of “Come on!”

When in London, right?

It was the first set Federer lost all tournament and another sign of Nadal’s remarkable progress on grass. Consider: The match was Federer’s 75th on the surface (he’s 64-11) and Nadal’s 16th.

“He did a terrific job by making the final here,” Federer said. “I was very impressed.”

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