- The Washington Times - Sunday, June 8, 2008

PARIS (AP) | Bjorn Borg has no doubt what it would mean if Roger Federer finally manages to beat Rafael Nadal in the French Open final.

“He definitely will be the greatest player ever to play the game,” Borg said Saturday, a day before No. 1-ranked Federer meets No. 2 Nadal in their third consecutive championship match at Roland Garros.

Although Borg preferred not to make a prediction, he does expect a tight contest.

“A lot of people, they say no one can beat Nadal tomorrow, the way he’s been playing,” Borg said. “But I think Roger has a really, really good chance.”

Borg plans to be present Sunday, watching as Nadal tries to equal the Swede’s mark of four consecutive titles at Roland Garros. Just like last year, when he sat in the front row at Wimbledon and watched Federer beat Nadal to equal Borg’s mark of five straight titles at the All England Club.

“They produce the best tennis you can play,” said Borg, who won 11 Grand Slam titles and was only 25 years old when he played his last major in 1981 before retiring. “It’s like two artists playing out there, both of them.”

Nadal is 10-6 against Federer - including 8-1 on clay, and 3-0 at the French Open - making him the only active player to have faced the Swiss star more than four times and compiled a winning record against him.

Still, Federer insists he is confident about his chances Sunday.

“Of course I believe,” he said. “I believe very strongly that this is my year.”

For each of the past four years, Federer has come to Paris knowing that he needed a French Open title to complete a career Grand Slam, something only five men have accomplished: Andre Agassi, Don Budge, Roy Emerson, Rod Laver and Fred Perry.

In 2005, that pursuit ended in the semifinals against Nadal.

In 2006 and 2007, he made it to the final, but lost each time to Nadal.

“This is a big thing for him,” Borg said. “He never won Paris, and that’s his biggest goal.”

The greats of the game who never did win the French Open include Pete Sampras, John McEnroe, Jimmy Connors, Boris Becker and Stefan Edberg. It’s Sampras’ career record of 14 Grand Slam titles that Federer is chasing; a victory Sunday would bring his total to 13.

As Borg pointed out, Federer could employ a slightly different strategy this time. In his semifinal victory over Gael Monfils, Federer came to the net more than 60 times, a high total on clay, a slower surface which dulls the serves and approach shots that make it easier to push forward.

“I can surprise him more than he can surprise me,” Federer said.

Nadal doesn’t necessarily expect a significant difference in Federer’s play.

“When one player is almost perfect,” Nadal said Saturday, “it’s very difficult to change a lot of things, no?”

Borg also finds Nadal’s game to be improved and said he thinks the Spaniard could wind up with seven or eight French Open titles. Borg also believes Nadal will win Wimbledon one day, having lost to Federer in the past two finals there.

It is on clay, though, where Nadal has established himself as predominant.

“He’s a favorite in every match he plays, against whoever he plays, on this court,” said No. 3 Novak Djokovic, who managed to win only 12 games against Nadal in a straight-set defeat in the semifinals. “He never lost here.”

The numbers Nadal has compiled at Roland Garros and on clay bear repeating.

He’s 27-0 for his career at the French Open, winning 81 of 88 sets.

He’s dropped zero sets through six matches this year, and only 36 games, the third-fewest lost by a man en route to a Grand Slam final in the 40-year Open era (the only lower totals were both accomplished by Borg at the French Open).

He’s won 114 of his last 116 matches on clay. He’s 40-0 in best-of-five-set matches on the surface and was pushed to five sets only twice in that span. He’s 21-1 in clay-court finals.

And so on.

“Invincible? No, he’s not,” said Nadal’s uncle and coach, Toni.

Asked to compare the 2008 version of Nadal to the Nadal of the previous three French Opens, his uncle said with a smile: “He’s a year older.”

Turning more serious, Toni Nadal added: “This year is the year he’s played the best here.”

Tough to argue with that.

One thing that certainly is the same about all four of Rafael Nadal’s visits to Roland Garros: It will take a victory over Federer to leave with the championship.

As for Federer? Once again, it’s Nadal who stands in his way.

“I don’t want to think back on what happened. The past is the past,” Federer said. “Now I need to believe I can do it.”

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