PARIS -- Roger Federer watched one more shot by one more
opponent miss its mark, then released a guttural yell and shook his
fist, a tad relieved to have won when he was close to his worst.
His three-hour struggle of a French Open semifinal was over
Friday, and Federer knew at that moment he was again one more
victory from the only major championship to elude him, one more
victory from a fourth consecutive Grand Slam title.
Next up are the match and the opponent that matter most: a
French Open final against his nemesis, two-time defending champion
For the third time in the past five Grand Slam finals, it'll be
Roger vs. Rafa, No. 1 vs. No. 2. With so much at stake.
"I've put myself in position," Federer said after erasing
deficits in every set to beat No. 4 Nikolay Davydenko of Russia
7-5, 7-6 (5), 7-6 (7) and reach his eighth consecutive Grand Slam
final, breaking a record established in 1934. "Now I just have one
match to go. So hopefully I can do it this year."
Standing in the way on the clay is Nadal, who holds a 7-4 career
edge over Federer, including 5-1 on the slow, red surface.
"It's a very important match for him," Nadal said, "but it's
also very important match for me."
That's because the Spaniard is hoping to become the first man
since Bjorn Borg in 1978-81 to win three straight French Opens.
Nadal improved to 20-0 at Roland Garros by eliminating No. 6 Novak
Djokovic of Serbia 7-5, 6-4, 6-2.
"He's very dominant here," Djokovic said.
Federer dominates everywhere but Paris. He's won a total of 10
titles at Wimbledon, the U.S. Open and the Australian Open, but
he's always come up short at Roland Garros, including losses to
Nadal in the semifinals in 2005 and the final last year.
But win Sunday, and Federer becomes only the sixth man with a
career Grand Slam, and the first man in nearly 40 years to win four
majors in a row. It wouldn't be a true Grand Slam -- winning all
four majors in a calendar year, accomplished by Don Budge in 1938
and by Rod Laver in 1962 and 1969 -- but call it a "Roger Slam,"
akin to the "Tiger Slam" that Tiger Woods fashioned with four
straight golf majors across 2000-01.
"It's not the same. It's not doing it in one year. It's doing
it at the end of one year and the beginning of the next," Laver
said by telephone from Carlsbad, Calif. "Still, it's unbelievable -- if he does it."
Both Nadal and Federer said the other should be considered the
favorite Sunday. And both quickly followed up with the phrase,
"Anything can happen."
Federer's lone victory over Nadal on clay came in their most
recent encounter, last month's Hamburg Masters final. That ended
Nadal's record 81-match winning streak on the surface.
"If I arrive on Sunday, and I don't play a very, very, very
good match, I'm going to lose for sure," said Nadal, who lost to
Federer in last year's Wimbledon final and is always quick to
remind everyone which of the two is ranked No. 1. "If I play a
very good match, maybe I'm going to lose, too."
Given what awaits, Federer's 3-hour, 1-minute workout against
Davydenko was a lot more taxing than the Swiss star would have
Said Davydenko: "It was physically tough -- and mentally."
Exhaling loudly with each groundstroke from his perch at the
baseline, Davydenko was able to hang right in there with his more
famous foe during long exchanges and wound up with a 15-13 edge in
points lasting 10 or more strokes.
At times, Federer was as fallible as he gets, making 45 unforced
errors. He put one overhead into the net, shanked another shot
sideways into the red geraniums at courtside and sent one ball 12
feet up in the stands behind the opposite baseline.
Things were so one-sided in Davydenko's favor at the beginning
that the crowd, desperate for a competitive match, resorted to
backing Federer, as though he were the underdog. One voice from the
upper deck wailed, "Allez, Roger! Come on!"
Even Federer's parents, watching from the players' guest seats,
were getting a tad worried.
"When you play well, it's easy. When you're not playing well,
those are the big wins, the battles. He battled today," said
Federer's father, Robert. "We were nervous. We're not used to
these battles so much."
And yet as much as he wavered, Federer never folded. Davydenko
was one point from a 5-2 lead in the first set -- "He broke me in
the first set, mentally, a little bit," the Russian said -- then
served for the second set at 5-4, and led 5-2 in the third set.
When he served for the third set at 5-3, the game featured six
break points, seven deuces and two set points -- both of which
Federer erased. He saved another set point at 7-6 in the final
tiebreaker, then ended the match by cutting a sliced backhand
return that Davydenko pushed wide, eliciting a bellow from Federer.
"I played excellent," Federer said, "when I had to."
Taking in part of his semifinal from the stands was Justine
Henin, the top-seeded Belgian who will try to win her fourth French
Open and sixth Grand Slam title when she meets No. 7 Ana Ivanovic
of Serbia in the women's final Saturday.
Henin has won a record 33 sets in a row at Roland Garros and
she's bidding to become the first player since Monica Seles in
1990-92 to win the clay-court Grand Slam three straight years.
Nadal's set streak on the red clay in Paris is up to 21, and he
had trouble only briefly against Djokovic. Serving for the opening
set, Nadal led 5-2, 30-love, when things began to unravel. He was
broken, and again at 5-4.
But Nadal broke back to 6-5 by punctuating a 20-stroke point
with a forehand winner down the line that Djokovic watched fly by.
There wasn't much suspense thereafter.
While they played, Federer was holding his postmatch news
conference and was asked whom he'd rather face. A rematch against
Nadal, perhaps? Nope.
"I probably prefer Djokovic, to be honest. Never lost against
the guy, and the guy has never played a Grand Slam final," Federer
said. "So that would be stupid to say the other guy."
Well, that "other guy" -- Nadal -- is the one he'll play.