July 2, 2010

Does It Mean As Much?

About a year ago, many people wondered whether Roger Federer's winning his historic Grand Slam was quite as significant since he didn't have to beat long-time rival Rafael Nadal to get it. This year we might ask the same question, as Nadal now has the chance to win the Wimbledon title without having to face Federer on his road.

Of course, the circumstances are a bit different -- Rafa did win the title once before, beating Roger in one of the most spectacular matches of 2008, while the one-time King of the All England Club still has not prevailed over the Master of Clay at Roland Garros. And there is no major record on the line this time around. But some factors are surprisingly similar.

During his run in Paris last year, Federer came shockingly close to elimination twice -- in the fourth round Tommy Haas won the first two sets before Roger came roaring back, and again in the semis the Swiss found himself down two sets-to-one to Juan Martin Del Potro, but still secured his spot in the finals. Early in this London fortnight, too, Nadal was shooting from behind against both Robin Hasse and Philipp Petzschner and somehow pulled out the wins. And for the title, the current world #1 will have to face the man who knocked out his adversary, just as Fed met Rafa's vanquisher, Robin Soderling in 2009.

It'll also be Tomas Berdych's first time playing in a Grand Slam final, just as the Swede made his debut at the French last year. But, unlike last year, I feel he might be a slightly more intimidating opponent for Rafa. The Czech has been slowly building his resume all year, taking a set from Andy Roddick in Brisbane, making the finals in Miami, and taking out Andy Murray in Paris on his way to the semis. Though still a few spots off his career high ranking of #9 in the world, he's been playing some of the most solid tennis at the All England Club. The twenty-four year old proved his endurance by beating Dennis Istomin in a long five sets and followed up his defeat of Federer with a decisive straight-set win over Novak Djokovic on Friday. He still holds a losing 3-7 record against Nadal, but he's certainly now looking in better shape than he ever has before.

We're still at least three sets away from crowning a champion at this surprise-filled Wimbledon, and while the final might not be the one we expected or even wished for, it certainly will feature two men who've fought tooth-and-nail to get here. And however that last match progresses, you can be sure that for whoever eventually wins the trophy, it will be one of the most meaningful events of his career.

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