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Destiny's calling Nadal

Time has come for Spaniard with nerves of steel

Posted: Friday June 3, 2005 4:55PM; Updated: Friday June 3, 2005 5:20PM
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Rafael Nadal
You get the feeling that steely-eyed Rafael Nadal isn't going to let down his guard.
SI/Bob Martin

Jon Wertheim is covering the French Open for Sports Illustrated and SI.com caught up with him to get his thoughts on the action at Roland Garros.

SI.com: What did you think of Friday's men's semifinals?

Wertheim: I think there was a sense this evening that after Rafael Nadal beat Roger Federer in the tournament's most anticipated match, they should have rolled out the carpet and held the trophy presentation ceremony. Taking nothing from Mariano Puerta -- who beat Nikolay Davydenko in Friday's other semi and will face Nadal on Sunday -- the sense was that this was the real final, the clash between tennis' best two players at the moment. It was a shame they weren't on the opposite sides of the draw.

I don't think it was a huge shock that Nadal -- who's just been ridiculous on clay this season -- beat Federer, a terrific player, albeit it one competing on his least-favorite surface. But I think the tenor of the match was strange. Federer came out terribly flat and was broken four times in the first set. He took control in the second, but then played a few loose games in the third. Then in the fourth he was up a break and a point from 4-1 and just played some careless tennis. Serving at 4-5 to stay in the match, he made a few shaky errors, got some bad luck and, before you knew it, he was out of the tournament.

Federer was broken nine times today, a record for him, and his forehand really let him down. Some of that obviously owes to Nadal's return game and the constant pressure he applies, but for such a beautiful player, Federer played some uncharacteristically sloppy tennis. To his credit, he essentially admitted as much. You wish his performance had been a little stronger for such a big match. Federer's loss to Marat Safin in this year's Australian Open final was a classic. This was an entertaining, back-and-forth match played in a great environment. But I don't think anyone's calling it an epic.

SI.com: Are we witnessing a changing of the guard in men's tennis?

Wertheim: Some people are floating that idea. I think that's awfully premature. Remember, this match was played on Nadal's best surface, and Federer's worst; a few points here and there, and Federer could have won. He'll be the favorite at Wimbledon, despite what happened this evening. And he is the defending champ at the U.S. Open. Let's see how Nadal fares when he moves off clay. On the other hand, Nadal just has that "something extra" that suggests he is "the goods" -- not just the huge forehand and foot speed and the lefty game, but mentally he's solid. In the biggest match of his career and there were not even traces of nerves on his side of the court. He started strong, played better in the end and closed the deal. And look how he's fared against Federer: He's 2-1 with the one loss coming on hard courts, in a match in which Nadal was two points from victory. He's just a terrific player. And if he and Federer become true rivals, the sport is better for it.

SI.com: Do you think Nadal will win Sunday's final pretty handily?

Wertheim: I do. Give a lot of credit to Puerta, who came from 2-1 sets down to beat Davydenko in the first match. He really knows his way around a clay court and for guy who was outside the top 400 not long ago, getting to Sunday is a real achievement. But, 1) He has to be tired after playing 10 sets of tennis -- grueling, grinding tennis -- over the last 48 hours. 2) His left-handed advantage is, in a sense, neutralized by Nadal being a lefty, too. 3) You just feel that Nadal isn't going to let down his guard. Destiny and all that.

SI.com: What about the Saturday women's final?

Wertheim: Speaking of destiny. I think on paper Justine Henin-Hardenne is the clear favorite. She's playing awfully well, she has been unforgiving mentally, she's serving well, and she's really become a feared player with a certain aura. And I think she'll move Mary Pierce from side to side and tire her out. On the other hand, if Mary Pierce -- who is kind of, sort of French -- starts strong (as she has all tournament) and gets the crowd going, it could be interesting. But realistically, I think you have to call this one for Henin-Hardenne.