Commentary

Nadal enters Wimbledon final with clear mental edge

Much has been made of Rafael Nadal's all-around improvement this year. But it's the mental edge he has on his Wimbledon finals opponent, Roger Federer, that may prove to be the difference.

Originally Published: June 18, 2008
By Ravi Ubha | Special to ESPN.com

Rafael NadalJulian Finney/Getty ImagesA lopsided win in Paris by Rafael Nadal may be weighing heavily on the mind of Roger Federer.
As Rafael Nadal trudged off Centre Court following his much-expected semifinal win over German veteran Rainer Schuettler on Friday, the usual autograph hunters scurried in the stands, hoping for a signature or two from the world No. 2.

Just before Nadal entered a walkway that leads to the locker rooms that are off-limits to fans, one requested a picture for her cell phone. Problem was, she seemingly didn't know how to use the camera on it. Nadal promptly took the device, huddled up alongside the young, incredulous spectator, and fired away.

There should be a few more pictures of Nadal taken on Sunday, this time as a possible Wimbledon champion.

One week after Spain's national team captured Europe's biggest soccer competition -- and co-host Switzerland floundered -- Nadal meets Roger Federer in the final at the All England Club for the third straight year.

Nadal has fine-tuned his game in the past 12 months, claiming a fourth consecutive French Open title on the terre battue by battering Federer. Still, Federer is seeking a sixth straight crown on the lawns here, his results earlier in 2008 -- and not just at Paris -- a disappointment.

"It's one of the most anticipated finals I can remember,'' said Tim Henman, a four-time Wimbledon semifinalist turned commentator for the BBC. "They've dominated their own surfaces so well, but then the opponent has played pretty well on that surface as well.''

The Roland Garros final three weeks ago was the exception. Federer managed four games and was fed a bagel in the third set in his most lopsided defeat in a Grand Slam. According to more than a few, he threw in the towel early.

Some also suggested if they squared off again in the Wimbledon final, Nadal would hold the mental edge. Federer dispelled the theory at his usual warm-up in Halle, Germany, and did so again Friday.

"That final is out of the picture,'' said Federer, who cruised past Marat Safin in his semi. "I hardly remember anything of it. It went so quickly. For me it's not really that big of a problem, maybe like you guys look at it.''

Henman, a good friend of Federer's, wasn't so sure.

"I think with the nature of the Paris final, it's impossible for there not to be a little bit of an issue,'' he said.

Here are a few more reasons Nadal might hold a mental edge.

He came close to ousting Federer in 2007, going down in a five-set thriller that came down to a few points in the fifth. Nadal blew four break points in two separate games; Federer survived, then raised his level.

Rafael Nadal
Clive Brunskill/Getty ImagesRafael Nadal is a win shy of becoming the first player since 1980 to pull off the French Open-Wimbledon double.
"I think Rafa last year when he had the break chances, he just hesitated and lost it there,'' four-time Grand Slam champion Guillermo Vilas said. "It was a mental thing. That's still in his head. Roger knew if he didn't do that, he would have lost the final.''

Nadal, by his own admission, has become a better all-court player. The serve has more punch, the backhand is crisper and he's not standing well behind the baseline.

Last month, he became the first man in more than 30 years to win the French Open and Artois Championships in the same campaign, derailing the likes of Novak Djokovic, Andy Roddick and Ivo Karlovic along the way.

He's been battle-tested so far at Wimbledon, taking out dangerous floaters Ernests Gulbis, Nicolas Kiefer, Mikhail Youzhny and Andy Murray. Similar to his French Open draw, Federer hasn't encountered a foe in the top 25.

"Rafa has been performing very well and won very easy at the Artois, showing he can win on grass, and everybody thinks that he's the next one and is peaking,'' said Vilas. "When you're peaking in your career, it's difficult to take you out of that place.''

Nadal, who agreed, at least publicly, that the French final meant nothing, will have to overcome some mental obstacles, too.

The last time he downed Federer on a surface other than clay came more than two years ago, in the final of the Dubai Tennis Championships.

Let's not forget that Federer hasn't suffered a reverse on grass in six years and hasn't even dropped a set on the surface this season. He won't exactly be lacking in motivation, given the Paris drubbing and talk of a downfall he felt was far too intense.

Federer has steamrolled opponents in the first set of nearly all his Wimbledon matches in 2008, his fourth-round matchup with Lleyton Hewitt being the exception.

In his last 10 meetings with Nadal, the winner of the first set has gone on to win the match nine times.

"This is the surface for Roger,'' said Vilas, predicting a straight-sets final -- without naming a victor.

Nadal, also a straight-sets winner in his semifinal, refused to answer in much detail when asked how becoming a Wimbledon champion would affect his career; clearly he didn't want to look that far ahead.

If you believe in these sorts of things, though, there was something to suggest Federer would be stealing the spotlight yet again on Sunday. Nadal was asked if Federer was the greatest grass-court player of all time. He said he wasn't sure because Pete Sampras claimed seven Wimbledon titles and Federer had won "six.''

Then he quickly corrected himself, with an embarrassed laugh.

"Hopefully not six this year,'' he said.

Ravi Ubha is a frequent contributor to ESPN.com.

London-based Ravi Ubha covers soccer and tennis for ESPN.com.