Nadal faces Berdych in Wimbledon finals

Published 11:06 pm Saturday, July 3, 2010

WIMBLEDON, England — While Roger Federer is at the start of a two-week vacation he wasn’t eager to begin, Rafael Nadal will be hard at work Sunday, facing a new sort of challenge in the Wimbledon final.

For the first time since 2002, the last round at the All England Club won’t include six-time champion Federer. Instead, Nadal will take on the player who eliminated Federer in the quarterfinals, first-time Grand Slam finalist Tomas Berdych.

They’ll be hard-pressed to equal the drama of the past three Wimbledon finals. Federer beat Nadal in 2007, Nadal beat Federer in 2008, and Federer beat Andy Roddick last year. All three matches were decided in the fifth set, including last year’s 16-14 thriller.

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But Nadal’s Wimbledon comeback and Berdych’s Grand Slam breakthrough offer compelling story lines.

Nadal missed last year’s tournament with tendinitis in both knees, then endured a prolonged slump. The Rafa of old resurfaced this spring, and he capped an undefeated clay-court season with his fifth French Open title.

Since mid-April, Nadal has gone 30-1 and regained the No. 1 ranking. He’s one victory from his eighth major title.

“I didn’t win a tournament for 11 months,” the Spaniard said. “When you have tough moments and you are another time in the top, it’s more special.”

The 6-foot-5 Berdych’s fortunes are on the rise, too. He has displayed flashes of brilliance since the age of 18, when he upset Federer in the 2004 Olympics.

Now 24, he has achieved milestones twice in the past month, reaching a major semifinal for the first time at the French Open and advancing even further at Wimbledon. He’s 4-1 this year against top-five players.

Seeded 12th, Berdych will climb to a career-best eighth in next week’s rankings. He’s the first Czech to reach the Wimbledon men’s final since Lendl in 1987.

“I’m still not done yet here,” Berdych said. “One more to go.”

The only Czech to win the men’s title was Jan Kodes in 1973.

Berdych’s major-final debut comes in his 28th Grand Slam tournament, the second-longest wait for a Grand Slam men’s finalist in the Open era. Perhaps he’s a late bloomer like Lendl, who won the first of his eight major titles at age 24.

“He achieved much, much more than me,” Berdych said, “but things need to start somewhere. Hopefully, it’s a really good time to start building hopefully similar results as he did.”

Lendl never won Wimbledon, and he never hit the ball as hard as Berdych, whose serve regularly tops 130 mph. Dealing with his flat, deep forehands can be like trying to short-hop a laser beam.

He has improved his movement and his resolve in big matches, as wins this week over Federer and No. 3-seeded Novak Djokovic confirmed. If he can upset Nadal, he will have defeated the world’s top three players en route to the title.

“It would be bad if I say I’m in fear of somebody,” Berdych said. “I won so many matches here. I beat really great players. So it gives you the confidence.”

Against Berdych, Nadal has won the past six matches and 14 consecutive sets, and it would seem the Spaniard caught a break not having to face Federer in the final.

Nadal said he doesn’t see it that way.

“Roger’s been there all the time for the last seven years, and that’s amazing,” Nadal said. “But no opponent can be more difficult than Tomas to play this final.”

Well, Nadal might be more difficult to play. He has reached the final each of the past four times he has played Wimbledon.

He was pushed to five sets in the second and third rounds, then complained of soreness in his right knee. Treatment eliminated the pain, and Nadal eliminated No. 6 Robin Soderling and No. 4 Andy Murray to reach his 10th Grand Slam final.

While Berdych is all about power, Nadal is all about persistence. His defensive skills make him the King of Clay, and even on Wimbledon’s faster grass surface, he forces opponents to hit several great shots to win a single point.

“That’s an incredible weapon — that will,” three-time Wimbledon champion John McEnroe said. “That’s like having the greatest serve in the history of tennis.”

The forehand is formidable, too. During one exchange with Murray, Nadal delicately hit four consecutive slice backhands, then threw himself into a forehand with a grunt so savage the crowd laughed.

There will be plenty such shots Sunday, making the final worthwhile viewing, even if it turns out not to be an epic. Maybe Federer will decide to watch.