- The Washington Times - Saturday, June 9, 2007

PARIS (AP) — Roger Federer watched one more shot by one more opponent miss its mark, then released a guttural yell and shook his fist, a tad relieved to have won when he was close to his worst.

His three-hour struggle of a French Open semifinal was over yesterday, and Federer knew at that moment he was again one more victory from the only major championship to elude him, one more victory from a fourth consecutive Grand Slam title.

Next up are the match and the opponent that matter most: a French Open final against his nemesis, two-time defending champion Rafael Nadal.

For the third time in the past five Grand Slam finals, it’ll be Roger vs. Rafa, No. 1 vs. No. 2. With so much at stake.

“I’ve put myself in position,” Federer said after erasing deficits in every set to beat No. 4 Nikolay Davydenko of Russia 7-5, 7-6 (5), 7-6 (7) and reach his eighth consecutive Grand Slam final, breaking a record established in 1934. “Now I just have one match to go. So hopefully I can do it this year.”

Standing in the way on the clay is Nadal, who holds a 7-4 career edge over Federer, including 5-1 on the slow, red surface.

“It’s a very important match for him,” Nadal said, “but it’s also very important match for me.”

That’s because the Spaniard is hoping to become the first man since Bjorn Borg from 1978 to 1981 to win three straight French Opens. Nadal improved to 20-0 at Roland Garros by eliminating No. 6 Novak Djokovic of Serbia 7-5, 6-4, 6-2.

“He’s very dominant here,” Djokovic said.

Federer dominates everywhere else. He’s won a total of 10 titles at Wimbledon, the U.S. Open and the Australian Open, but he’s always come up short at Roland Garros, including losses to Nadal in the semifinals in 2005 and the final last year.

But win tomorrow, and Federer becomes only the sixth man with a career Grand Slam, and the first man in nearly 40 years to win four majors in a row. It wouldn’t be a true Grand Slam — winning all four majors in a calendar year, accomplished by Don Budge in 1938 and by Rod Laver in 1962 and 1969 — but call it a “Roger Slam,” akin to the “Tiger Slam” that Tiger Woods fashioned with four straight golf majors across 2000 and 2001.

“It’s not the same. It’s not doing it in one year. It’s doing it at the end of one year and the beginning of the next,” Laver said by telephone from Carlsbad, Calif. “Still, it’s unbelievable — if he does it.”

Both Nadal and Federer said the other should be considered the favorite. And both quickly followed up with the phrase, “Anything can happen.”

Federer’s lone victory over Nadal on clay came in their most recent encounter, last month’s Hamburg Masters final. That ended Nadal’s record 81-match winning streak on the surface.

“If I arrive [tomorrow], and I don’t play a very, very, very good match, I’m going to lose for sure,” said Nadal, who lost to Federer in last year’s Wimbledon final and is always quick to remind everyone which of the two is ranked No. 1. “If I play a very good match, maybe I’m going to lose, too.”

Given what awaits, Federer’s 3-hour, 1-minute workout against Davydenko was a lot more taxing than the Swiss star would have preferred.

Said Davydenko: “It was physically tough — and mentally.”

Exhaling loudly with each groundstroke from his perch at the baseline, Davydenko was able to hang right in there with his more famous foe during long exchanges and wound up with a 15-13 edge in points lasting 10 or more strokes.

At times, Federer was as fallible as he gets, making 45 unforced errors. He put one overhead into the net, shanked another shot sideways into the red geraniums at courtside and sent one ball 12 feet up in the stands behind the opposite baseline.

Things were so one-sided in Davydenko’s favor at the beginning that the crowd, desperate for a competitive match, resorted to backing Federer, as though he were the underdog. One voice from the upper deck wailed, “Allez, Roger! Come on!”

Even Federer’s parents, watching from the players’ guest seats, were getting a tad worried.

“When you play well, it’s easy. When you’re not playing well, those are the big wins, the battles. He battled today,” said Federer’s father, Robert. “We were nervous. We’re not used to these battles so much.”

Nadal’s set streak on the red clay in Paris is up to 21, and he had trouble only briefly against Djokovic. Serving for the opening set, Nadal led 5-2, 30-love, when things began to unravel. He was broken, and again at 5-4.

But Nadal broke back to 6-5 by punctuating a 20-stroke point with a forehand winner down the line that Djokovic watched fly by. There wasn’t much suspense thereafter.

While they played, Federer was holding his postmatch press conference and was asked whom he would rather face. A rematch against Nadal, perhaps? Nope.

“I probably prefer Djokovic, to be honest. Never lost against the guy, and the guy has never played a Grand Slam final,” Federer said. “So that would be stupid to say the other guy.”

Well, that “other guy” — Nadal — is the one he’ll play.



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