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Rafa, Roger and Novak mark Wimbledon intent


 

Originally published on: 26/02/10 14:13

The world’s top three players have each proven that their grass-court form is primed for Wimbledon by reaching the finals of their warm-up tournaments.

Immediately after reaching the latter stages of the French Open – Djokovic was knocked out in the semis by eventual champion Nadal, who beat Federer in the final – all three have quickly made the adjustment from slow clay courts to rapid, low-bouncing grass.

Rafael Nadal, now undisputedly among the clay court greats, reached the final of the Artois Championships for the first time this year. The best defender in the modern game is closer to completing his armoury on grass, decamping from his usual berth deep behind the baseline to a position higher up the court, and even looking to improve his net game.

His semi-final performance against Andy Roddick, the four-time champion and also a Wimbledon finalist, justified his top-seed status in the tournament. Roddick, beaten 7-5 6-4, could not get close to the Nadal, who earned a single break to take each set.

“I was pretty pleased with the way I hit the ball, but Rafael is just so match-sharp right now, I was fighting an uphill battle today.”

Even Bjorn Borg, the only player to win both Wimbledon and Roland Garros in the same season in the Open era, is tipping the Spaniard to go one better at Wimbledon this year after falling to Federer in the final for the past two years.

Nadal would be the first Spanish player to win a grass court tournament since 1972 should he beat Novak Djokovic in Sunday’s final – not that such an outcome is a mere formality.

In contrast to Nadal, who has come through tough encounters with the likes of Roddick and Ivo Karlovic, the Serb has blitzed his way to the final. His 6-1 6-0 demolition of David Nalbandian in the other Artois semi-final was over so fast that the BBC was forced to re-run the Henman-Sampras final in order to fill the scheduling.

Djokovic looks a more natural player than Nadal on grass. While both play an all-court game, his instincts are more tuned to attacking earlier in the point than the Spaniard. There is more variety in his serve, and his volleys are more assured. On grass, the Djokovic slice is a key weapon against the likes of Nadal, who struggle to whip the ball back when it stays so low.

The on-court confidence of both Djokovic and Nadal will not have been higher prior to Wimbledon. Each comes into the tournament with a Grand Slam victory in 2008, and atop the ATP race. Irrespective of form, however, one man will always stand in their way – Roger Federer.

The Swiss might be enduing the hardest season of his career, from his bout of glandular fever to his routing in the French Open final, but his record on grass currently has no equal.

Federer will begin the defence of his Wimbledon title with 59 consecutive grass-court wins to his name. And after folding against Nadal in Paris, the world No.1 has responded in the most convincing fashion. Preparing as always at the previously unfashionable Gerry Weber Open in Halle, he reached the final without dropping one of his 39 service games.

But as Federer has stated himself, “Queen’s is not Wimbledon, Halle is not Wimbledon.”

There is no questioning that an in-form Federer is virtually untouchable on grass. No other player is as complete, as dangerous in defence as attack, from the baseline as at the net. His balletic movement and supernatural instincts, combined with the aura of invincibility he must feel on Centre Court – even if not elsewhere any more – have taken him to five previous titles.

So who do you pick? Nadal, the ever-improving nearly-man? Djokovic, the heir to the throne? Or Federer, the man rewriting history?

Roll on June 23.

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