05 July 2008

Wimbledon Lucky to be Predictable

(From RealClearSports)

What, you were expecting a Safin-Schuettler final?

Destiny has never been so delicious. A Roger Federer-Rafael Nadal final seemed so preordained, with the other 62 matches played as mere exhibitions. Inevitability didn't work for Hillary Clinton, but it's a gift from the tennis gods to Wimbledon.

After summarily dismissing Marat Safin and Rainer Schuettler in the semifinals, respectively, Roger and Rafa will be facing each other on Sunday for the seventh time in a grand slam final. Federer might've had his troubles with Nadal on clay, but he's beaten Rafa in the last two finals on Centre Court. Heck, he's not lost to anybody at the All-England Club since 2002.

But what makes this year's final even more riveting is that Federer seems to be at his most vulnerable. Nadal is riding on a tidal wave of momentum after a three-set mauling of Roger in the French Open final. A Rafa win at Wimbledon may very well mark the end of an era and the beginning of a new one.

No matter who wins, history will be made, just like in 1981. A young upstart named John McEnroe ended Bjorn Borg's quest for a sixth consecutive Wimbledon title after losing to him in an epic final the year before. Nadal could reprise the role of Johnny Mac, after similarly pushing Federer to the limit last year. Or it could be Federer who does Borg one better, and at the same time denying Nadal -- for the third consecutive year -- from becoming the first man to win the French-Wimbledon double since Borg did it in 1980.

Tennis hasn't seen such an intense rivalry since Borg and McEnroe met in four slam finals in a span of two years. And much like Borg-McEnroe, the Roger-Rafa duel is marked by the rivals' distinctly different styles and personalities.

Roger is Rembrandt to Rafa's Van Gogh. Roger's majestic like Mozart; Rafa's ominous like Wagner. Roger's artistry evokes that of a longbowman. Rafa is the guy who wields the flame-thrower.

And that extends to off the court, too. Federer is princely enough to bring a dinner jacket to pick up his Wimbledon trophies. Nadal wears shirts with no sleeves to better show off his biceps. Roger is a multi-lingual world traveler. Rafa is a homebody who likes to hang with the familia in Mallorca. Federer is charmingly and disarmingly arrogant (some trick to pull that off!). Nadal's arrogance lives only between the white lines -- he's as gracious and humble as they come.

Yet it is Federer whose confidence should be badly shaken after the humiliation in Paris. Oddsmakers made Roger and Rafa co-favorites prior to the start of Wimbledon -- quite disrespectful to the man who's won his last 65 matches on grass. The media bandwagon is now full of Rafa's new best friends, many of them eager to proclaim that Federer's reign is over. Even McEnroe -- OK, Patrick McEnroe -- said that Rafa owns Roger, probably for good.

If you didn't think Federer was seething after getting dusted on the Roland Garros clay, then you must’ve been fooled by that unflappable mask of his. Roger is quietly going about his business this fortnight, and he's revealed few flaws in storming to the final without dropping a set. He's not going down without a fight.

Nadal, on the other hand, has been electrifying. He's learned to adapt his game to the once-foreign surface, amping up his serve and perfecting his return game. Rafa won't say it -- but at the precocious age of 22, he's ready to take over the tennis world.

Is he good enough to dethrone the king, right here and right now? Hmmm, we're not quite so sure. Fortunately for Wimbledon, the only match that's not a foregone conclusion is the only one that matters.

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