- Whit Sheppard
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PARIS -- Pffffftttt.
That was the sound that seemed to linger in the air early Friday afternoon as the French Open final everyone wants to see appeared to be on the verge of dissolving.
With No. 3 David Nalbandian leading world No. 1 Roger Federer 6-3, 3-0 in the day's first semifinal, prospects seemed shaky for a Sunday matchup between top-seeded Federer and No. 2 Rafael Nadal, who will stand in the way of Federer's quest to make tennis history.
If Federer wins Sunday, he will have won the tennis equivalent of the Tiger Slam, capturing all four tennis majors consecutively, something that hasn't been accomplished since Rod Laver won all four Slams in the same calendar year in 1969.
The Swiss will have a great chance to equal Laver's achievement if he triumphs Sunday because he'll be heading to Wimbledon, where he has won three straight titles, then the U.S. Open, which he has won the previous two years.
But first, he had to find a way to pull his game together and get past a hot-starting Nalbandian.
"I couldn't explain why I had such a bad start," Federer said. "All of a sudden, he pulled away and I couldn't keep the ball in play. That's definitely got something to do with the long history I've had with him."
Nalbandian, who until today was one of three active players with a winning record (6-5) against Federer, had broken the vaunted Federer serve three times and looked to be in control on a windswept Court Philippe Chatrier. But control is the smooth Swiss' domain on all but the rarest of occasions, and he regained a measure of it shortly thereafter.
Having fought his way back to 3-all in the second set, Federer hit a you-had-to-see-it-to-believe-it forehand winner off his shoetops with his back turned to his disbelieving opponent, then raised a lone digit into the blue Parisian sky as cheers rained down upon him. The gesture was decidedly un-Federer-like, but it was appropriate -- and telling.
"I thought, 'Somehow, I have to find a way to get into the match,'" Federer said. "I knew that something had to happen. That it took a shot like that, that's quite interesting. I can't pull those off on a consistent basis."
Nalbandian's take on the shot: "Incredible, incredible."
Less than an hour later, Nalbandian -- who earlier in the third set had been visited courtside by a trainer -- abandoned the match at a set each, with Federer up 5-2, because of a recurrence of a strained abdominal muscle he incurred Wednesday in his quarterfinal win over Nikolay Davydenko.
"In the beginning of today, I feel 100 percent, I feel perfect," he said. "And then in the middle of the second set, I feel it again much worse than [against] Davydenko. So, that was tough."
It was a strangely anticlimactic way to finish a Grand Slam semifinal, reminiscent of Justine Henin-Hardenne's injury pullout earlier this year against Amélie Mauresmo in the Australian Open women's final.
"It's true, it doesn't usually happen that someone actually starts playing a match and then gives up halfway through," Federer said. "It's a bit unfortunate to win a match like this in a semifinal. But I think I worked to put myself in that position."
Federer heads to Sunday's final as rested as one could hope to be after six matches on the terre battue at Roland Garros and should be the fresher player. To say he'll have his work cut out for him, though, is a gross understatement. Nadal leads their head-to-head series 5-1 and has beaten Federer in Masters Series finals in Monte Carlo and Rome this spring. He also is riding a 59-match winning streak on clay, establishing a new men's record.
Asked whether he had contemplated his date with history, Federer paused for a moment, smiled shyly, and said, "Yes. I have."
He added, "I have created a fabulous opportunity for myself, so we'll see if I can make it good. It would be something quite incredible because I'll be winning two things at the same time."
Don't bet against it.
Whit Sheppard is a Paris-based sportswriter who is covering the French Open and Wimbledon for ESPN.com. He can be e-mailed at email@example.com.
39mMarc Stein and Tim MacMahon
1dEric D. Williams