The private jet waiting to whisk Rafael Nadal back to his Mallorca home for a few days' break before Wimbledon will just have to wait another day. Yesterday Nadal, making the switch from clay to grass appear the simplest feat since Bjorn Borg's days, derailed Andy Roddick's bid for a record fifth title at the Artois Championships.
The 7-5 6-4 win may have looked close, but was far from that. Playing at the brilliantly intense level which had decimated the Roland Garros field, Nadal dismantled one of the world's most accomplished grass-court operators. A regular flow of aces, 15 in all, was just enough to keep Roddick in contention until midway through the second set when Nadal pushed the "ignite" button.
The last couple of games were embarrassing, with Roddick groaning out loud as he was run ragged in pursuit of the Spaniard's lethal whipped crosscourt forehand. As the last one flashed across his despairing lunge, Roddick's "yup" said it all, and he later acknowledged, "Rafa is almost in cruise control". This was only Roddick's third defeat in 28 matches at the Artois, where he has won four times in the past five years. A new champion is assured for the sponsors' 30th and final year of involvement after Serbia's Novak Djokovic set up today's final with Nadal by crushing David Nalbandian 6-1 6-0 in 47 minutes.
A courtside TV man asked Nadal if he now considered himself the favourite for Wimbledon. With a modest smile, the 22-year-old deflected the question, even though he could not have known that Roger Federer, the five-time Wimbledon winner, had just clocked up his 58th consecutive win on grass by reaching the Halle final. For the record, Federer is evens for Wimbledon and Nadal 3-1.
"Better I don't think about that," was Nadal's response to further questions about how he might expect to pull up against Federer if they reach another Wimbledon final. Instead, he was focused on the present and what he termed the "unbelievably special" feeling of reaching this afternoon's final, while feeling "for sure, a bit tired" after his exertions on clay.
For such an eagerly-anticipated occasion as Nadal-Roddick, the attendance at the start on a perfect afternoon was disappointing with the corporate brigade still in mid-lunch. By the time they had settled into their seats, Roddick had already struck eight aces in his first four service games, four of them coming in one game as he struggled to ward off three break points. It was all too much for the speed gun, which registered the American's second serve of the match at 175 miles an hour, 20 miles faster than Roddick's own world record.
Perhaps that opportunity came just too early for Nadal, whose slowness in getting into his stride has caused some of the Spanish media to compare him to a diesel engine whirring into life. The reprieve was not destined to last. On virtually every foray to the net, Roddick was passed. And whenever he failed to land a first serve on target, the risk was that his second would be hit back past him.
The break came in the 11th game, when even another clutch of three aces failed to keep Nadal at bay. It was the first time the Roddick serve had been breached all week, albeit in a schedule abbreviated by withdrawals of opponents like Andy Murray and Mardy Fish.
Now, required merely to serve for the set, Nadal faltered for the only time in the one hour 27 minute contest. Two forehand errors in succession presented Roddick with a pair of break points and, when they were fought off, another brace of Nadal errors brought to four the times the American was offered the chance to take the set into a tie-break. To no one's great surprise, Nadal's nerve held and he even clinched the set with the cheekiest of drop shots.
From then on Nadal was even more ruthless, conceding only three more points on serve. As his percentage of aces began to fall away, Roddick was increasingly jerked around the court and the match-clinching break came when, astounded by a miracle "get" to what he was entitled to feel should have been a winner, Roddick ballooned the Nadal return yards out of court.
When he finally tucked away a volley, the first for a long while, the showman in Roddick surfaced as he strutted around, both arms raised in mock celebration. It was the last time the title holder was able to enjoy the afternoon.
After the final against Djokovic, against whom he holds an 8-3 record, Nadal says he will spend a maximum of three days at home in Manacor before returning to prepare for Wimbledon. And if he was already at home, rather than in a tennis final, what would his day be like? "Go fishing morning. In the afternoon, going to play golf maybe. Later, be with the family because it's Sunday."
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