- The Washington Times - Saturday, June 7, 2008

That Rafael Nadal would be so dominant during a 6-4, 6-2, 7-6 (3) victory over Novak Djokovic, a man who is, after all, ranked No. 3 and a Grand Slam champion?

Or that Roger Federer would run into so much trouble before winning 6-2, 5-7, 6-3, 7-5 against Gael Monfils, a man who is, after all, ranked 59th and a major semifinalist for the first time but buoyed by the cheers of his fellow Frenchmen?

Then again, by the end of the day, Roland Garros once more produced the likeliest of all championship matches: No. 1 Federer vs. No. 2 Nadal.

“Rafa again, across the net - it’s the ultimate test on clay. It would be so much better to win the French Open by beating him,” Federer said. “It should be entertaining to watch.”

The showdown Sunday is their third consecutive French Open final and their fifth Grand Slam final overall, and plenty is on the line.

Nadal can become the first man since Bjorn Borg in 1978-81 to win the tournament four years in a row. Federer can add the lone major trophy missing from his collection, thereby making him the sixth man to complete a career Grand Slam and increasing his total haul to 13 majors, one shy of Pete Sampras’ record.

“What’s special is winning the tournament, not beating Federer,” said Nadal’s uncle and coach, Toni. “But if Rafael beats Federer, it means more.”

Federer is 6-10 overall against Nadal, including 1-8 on clay and 0-3 at the French Open, where they also met in the 2005 semifinals.

“I will try everything,” Federer said. “I hope I will finally win here.”

Nadal hasn’t lost at Roland Garros. Ever.

He improved to 27-0 by beating Djokovic, who won the Australian Open in January and would have overtaken Nadal in the rankings by beating him.

But by the sixth game, Djokovic’s cheeks were flush from exertion, and he was gasping for air. Nadal make him look like a first-round opponent who had come through qualifying.

“Almost perfect,” was the way Nadal described his performance. “Best match at Roland Garros so far, no?”

Federer’s semifinal was second, so he took advantage of the opportunity to watch his nemesis.

“Rafa played fantastic for basically the entire time,” said Federer, who helped his own cause by winning the point on 49 of 64 trips to the net against Monfils.

Nadal does his finest work along the baseline, and the longer the point, the better as far as he’s concerned. Against Djokovic, he won 32 of the 48 points that lasted at least 10 strokes, according to a tally compiled by the Associated Press.

In addition to showing up on the scoreboard, each of those extended rallies - often prolonged by Nadal’s tremendous defense - can take a toll on an opponent’s body and morale.

“Sometimes it’s really frustrating when you can’t make a winner,” Djokovic acknowledged.

Federer struggled against Monfils, especially in the final game of the second set, when he looked nervous serving and shanked a forehand on the final shot.

The partisan crowd roared, sensing a possible upset.

“I thought that would put pressure on Roger, but he didn’t feel any pressure,” Monfils said. “The crowd was behind me all the time. But then I was playing Roger, and French people love him as well.”

Federer finished him off with two volley winners, then shook his racket as he skipped to the net, knowing full well what awaits.

“Honestly, I felt relief,” Federer said. “And then, five or 10 seconds later, I started thinking about another final. That’s where I want to be.”

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