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Friday, July 2, 2010
Masterful Rafa earns high marks


Rafael Nadal's much-hyped match against Andy Murray at Wimbledon didn't disappoint. Unless, that is, you live in Great Britain. The wait for a men's Grand Slam champion for the country was extended after Nadal advanced 6-4, 7-6 (6), 6-4. Seventy-four depressing years.

Now in his fourth Wimbledon final since 2006, Nadal will face Tomas Berdych. Berdych followed up his victory over Roger Federer by easing past a disappointing Novak Djokovic 6-3, 7-6 (9), 6-3.

ESPN.com grades the men's semifinalists, starting with Friday's winners.

Rafael Nadal

It all looked so bleak for Nadal in the third round. He had to come back from being down two sets to one, again, and complained of knee discomfort.

The world No. 1 got what he wanted in the fourth round -- an easy encounter -- and his confidence soared after topping baseline-bashing Swede Robin Soderling.

Knowing he needed to be flawless against Murray, he was. Nadal, who was beaten fair and square by Murray in the quarterfinals of the Australian Open, won all the pivotal points and was nearly flawless on serve. No wonder he owns seven majors.

"For me it was an amazing day, very important victory for me, one of the more difficult victories of my career because the opponent was playing well and I need really to play my best tennis to try to win," Nadal said.

As Murray said, returning Nadal's lefty serve isn't as easy as it looks.

Grade (A): Typical Rafa

Tomas Berdych

There's no stopping Berdych.

The 6-foot-5 Czech was fully composed and mostly replicated his quarterfinal performance against Federer. Berdych's effortless forehand gave Djokovic huge problems and, on the few occasions Berdych was in trouble on serve, he hit bombs.

Against Djokovic and Federer, two great returners, only twice did the 24-year-old drop serve.

In short, he's finally playing the type of tennis we all thought he could three or four years ago.

"Playing well, feeling great, still healthy, and I hope [to have] some energy left there for the last one," Berdych said. "I'm looking forward to the next one, and definitely not [fearing] anybody."

Berdych's lone blip came in the tiebreaker, although that was temporary.

Grade (A): Who was that impostor of season's past?

Andy Murray

Who are we to pounce on Murray? Let the British tabloids do that Saturday.

Seriously, it's hard to be overly critical of Murray. Early in the third set, with Murray leading 3-2, he had hit more aces, fewer double faults, had the same first-serve percentage, hit more winners and made fewer unforced errors than Nadal -- yet trailed by two sets.

But it's all about belief. Did Murray really think he could beat Nadal?

When he really needed a big serve, at 6-5 in the tiebreaker, he stuttered.

In majors at this stage, he's not in the same class as Nadal and Federer.

"I'll look back at the tournament as a whole in a few weeks as a good one, just not great," Murray said.

Grade (C): Still can't win the big one

Novak Djokovic

Prior to the match, Djokovic said he was playing almost as well as ever. No one would have disagreed.

In the fourth round against Aussie scrapper Lleyton Hewitt, Djokovic took the initiative, standing in on the baseline and letting his forehand rip. His serve, a constant source of concern, was firing.

It didn't last. Djokovic was too passive against Berdych, letting the Czech tee up. Only when he fell behind 6-2 in the tiebreaker did the Serb attack, getting Berdych on the move.

"I wasn't going for the shots too much," Djokovic said. "I was kind of waiting for him to make a mistake. I was wrong."

As for the serving, eight double faults tells most of the story.

Grade (D): The renaissance was brief