English summer provides only dark clouds for sublime Federer

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The Independent Online

Alan Mills's last Wimbledon as the tournament's referee would not be complete without a rain crisis, and the forecast is not good.

It is also possible that Federer will be denied by his opponent, either Andy Roddick or Thomas Johansson, though on the evidence so far that seems less likely.

As Lleyton Hewitt, the 2002 champion and former world No 1, said after losing to Federer for the eighth time in a row yesterday: "I feel like I'm the second best player going around at the moment. It's just that the best player going around is pretty bloody good."

Hewitt also varied his natural game, venturing to the net more than usual in an attempt to break Federer's rhythm. "I felt I hit the ball pretty well," Hewitt said. "I didn't serve as well as I would have liked. But he puts a lot of pressure on your service games, as well. He gives you few points. I think that's been the biggest turnaround in his game over the last couple of years. He used to give you a lot more free points on your service games, and you just don't get those any more.

"That's why he's the best player. He dictated play better than me. That's basically where he got the win."

Some say that Federer has reached the point, like Pete Sampras before, where opponents are treating him with too much respect and are several games down in their mind as soon as they see him on the other side of the net.

Others would argue that Federer's reputation intimidates his opponents simply because he backs it up with almost flawless tennis. After all, only Marat Safin (at the Australian Open), Richard Gasquet (at the Monte Carlo Masters) and Rafael Nadal (at the French Open) have beaten him in his last 77 matches.

Yesterday's semi-final victory against the third-seeded Hewitt, 6-3, 6-4, 7-6, was Federer's 35th win in a row on grass, and he is unbeaten in his last 20 finals on any surface, which is an ATP Tour record.

For all that, Federer is aware that there are blemishes in his game. His backhand is not as good as his forehand, and he does not attack the net as often as some observers would like.

Yesterday, against the swift, counter-punching Hewitt, Federer's first serve was misfiring in the opening set, only 10 of 27 deliveries landing good. Fortunately for the champion, Hewitt was not serving well either, offering Federer the cushion of a break in the second game.

To make matters interesting, Federer made four unforced errors to lose his own serve in the next game. For a time it appeared that Hewitt, probing his opponent's backhand, trying to make him rush, and generally displaying far more confidence than when dazzled by Federer in last year's US Open final, was getting to grips with a difficult task.

That thought was erased in the eighth game, when Federer's wickedly sliced backhand caused Hewitt, break point down, to net the ball, after which Federer served the set out after 36 minutes.

Although the contest was unflagging, and the protagonists engaged in many wonderful rallies and hit some incredible shots, Hewitt did not get another opportunity to break, partly because Federer's serving improved and the Australian's fluctuated.

Federer broke for 3-2 in the second set with a block return off a Hewitt drive, and the third set went to a tie-break after Hewitt repelled Federer's all-out assault on his serve in the fifth game.

Whether or not Hewitt has come to respect Federer's talent too much, there was mutual respect in this match. The players groaned at their own errors, but there was no attempt to undermine the opposition.

Even when the crowd booed the umpire's decision to overrule a call on a far line in Federer's favour, there were no histrionics from Hewitt.

The tie-break was interesting rather than thrilling. Federer seemed ready to run away with it after Hewitt double-faulted to 4-1 - but Federer returned the gift on the next point before going to win the shoot-out, 7-4, wrapping up the match after two hours seven minutes.

Any criticism of Federer's play is nit-picking, of course. The man, in the opinion of everybody from John McEnroe to the local club hacker, is potentially the best player the sport has ever seen. And the more rivals he "owns", the longer his domination is likely to continue, barring injuries.

Federer has done well so far to enjoy the praise without letting it go to his head. "I don't hear the commentary when I'm playing," he said. "I don't read the papers either these two weeks, because I'm in an apartment and usually I only see the papers when I'm in hotels."

Federer has not always dominated Hewitt, who has won eight of their 10 matches. But the Australian has been on the losing end since 2003.

"I have he feeling I can hang with him," Federer explained. "If I'm good from the baseline, I'll get a chance to break him. It seems like he's having a hard time trying to break my serve, which always keeps me level with him. Eventually, with the variation in my game, I get the errors out of him, too."

Speaking about the men's final against either Roddick or Johansson, Federer said: "The next match is huge to me," said Federer. "I'm very proud to be in my third Wimbledon final, it means a lot to me."