Invincible Rafa marches to Wimby final
WIMBLEDON, England -- In the end, it felt like a funeral on Henman Hill. So many thousands, who wanted it so badly for Scotland's Andy Murray, were so oddly quiet as they watched Rafael Nadal stride into the final match on the massive electronic screen.
Not even all those pitchers of Pimm's, the amber-colored, gin-based cocktail so popular over here, could inspire the crowd to anything approaching enthusiasm as the Spaniard, coolly and clinically, took the blade to their hero.
Nadal was a 6-4, 7-6 (6), 6-4 winner. Even though he won a total of only seven more points than Murray, it felt like 70.
Though Saturday's tabloids will focus on the 74-year drought for Great Britain's men at the All England Club -- imagine, nearly three-quarters of a century since Fred Perry won the last of his three consecutive titles -- in the context of tennis, the big story is this:
Nadal, the celebrated five-time French Open champion, has now advanced to the past four finals at Wimbledon championships he has played in, joining a who's who of men's tennis featuring Boris Becker, Bjorn Borg, Roger Federer, John McEnroe and Pete Sampras.
Some may claim there is an asterisk attached -- Nadal missed last year's event with aching knees -- but after reaching two finals here then breaking through with the title in 2008, he is playing again like the king of the realm. He has won 13 straight matches on these toasted lawns and needs one more to collect his eighth Grand Slam singles title, which would equal Ivan Lendl, Jimmy Connors and Andre Agassi -- a month past his 24th birthday.
His Sunday opponent is Tomas Berdych, the No. 12 seed who strong-armed No. 3 Novak Djokovic 6-3, 7-6 (9), 6-3 in the first semifinal. It was Berdych who ended Roger Federer's splendid run of seven consecutive Wimbledon finals with a quarterfinals upset.
It will take a chemistry-changing effort from Berdych to beat Nadal; he's lost the past six matches they've played.
"I never thought [I'd] win in three sets," Nadal said of Friday's match. "He's very difficult. For that reason I think it's one of the biggest victories in my career today."
Nadal used his trademark lefty forehand, spinning it so savagely -- he truly was bending it like David Beckham, who was in attendance at Centre Court -- that Murray had difficulty controlling it. There were times when Nadal ran so far around his backhand he was standing a yard beyond the doubles alley -- and he won most of those points.
"You're not going to be able to play every single point on your terms against the best player in the world, one of the best players ever," Murray said. "You can't."
Nadal, who had lost five sets coming into the match -- the most among the semifinalists -- looked invincible except for a brief spell early in the third set when he started feeling tired.
The first set hinged on a single swing, when Murray hooked a tentative forehand just wide and Nadal served it out. The second wound up in a tiebreaker that underlined Nadal's relentless mindset. After a surprising double fault gave Murray a 6-5 lead with two serves on his racket, Nadal got even with a gorgeous backhand stab volley to save set point. Then he got lucky when a backhand skimmed off the net cord, past Murray and into the open court. Serving for the set, Nadal ran Murray wide with several forehands and the Scot couldn't keep it in the court.
Murray broke Nadal for the only time in the first game of the third set but, inevitably, Nadal broke back in the eighth game and again in the 10th. Murray's weird, skipping forehand flew long and the No. 2 seed was a winner in a tidy 2 hours, 22 minutes.
As a result, Bunny Austin remains the last British man to reach the final here -- and that was 72 years ago (1938). There have been 10 consecutive losses by Brits in the semifinals since, including four by Tim Henman and the past two by Murray.
Now Nadal prepares to face Berdych, who, after struggling to deliver on unrealized potential, is suddenly playing like the 18-year-old who stunned Federer six years ago at the Olympics in Athens. He discovered a new level within himself at the French Open, reaching his first major semifinal. He was the oldest semifinalist (at 24 years, 9 months) and is now contemplating his first final after beating No. 1 Federer and No. 3 Djokovic.
His long, languid style is reminiscent of Richard Krajicek and Goran Ivanisevic -- big forehand and bigger serve -- astonishingly smooth for someone who stands 6-foot-5. Berdych heisted the first set from Djokovic with a break in the sixth game, but he left a permanent impression in a sterling second-set tiebreaker.
Djokovic was lucky to get there, breaking Berdych for the first time at 6-5 when a forehand hit the net cord and fell back to force the extra session. Berdych ran out to a 6-2 lead, but Djokovic showed some serious fortitude in saving four set points -- the last after a replay overrule of a lob called out that would have given Berdych the set.
Berdych, after yet another easy point following a big serve, had a 10-9 lead when Djokovic finally cracked in the set's 70th minute. He hit a double fault into the top of the net, going for a tad too much, and the usually reserved Berdych emitted an impressive scream.
And Djokovic? The only player ranked in the top 20 who averages more double faults than aces per match slammed his racket into the changeover chair.
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Djokovic, consistent with his history, went quietly in the third. Serving at 3-4, he double-faulted for the eighth time, and when Berdych hit one last unreturnable bomb, he became the first Czech man to reach the final here since Ivan Lendl 20 years ago.
It was another near miss for Djokovic. Since winning the 2008 Australian Open, he has played in 10 majors, reaching the semifinals and quarterfinals four times each but never advancing to the final.
When did Berdych first feel he was capable of winning a major title?
"Well," Berdych said, "I think this [is a] question I can get after the match on Sunday. If it's going to go well, I mean, why now? Still one to go. Definitely, I'm not going give you an answer for it."
Rafa, on the other hand, was eager to answer when asked if Murray would one day win a major title.
"He deserves to win a Grand Slam," Nadal said. "He's very good, and I think he's going to win one. Very soon."
Not sooner than Nadal, who seemed more excited talking about his beloved Spanish national soccer team and its World Cup chances rather than his own at Wimbledon.
"Against Paraguay we need to play well to be in semifinals," Nadal said. "And I need to play well on Sunday."
Greg Garber is a senior writer for ESPN.com.
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