Federer primed to tackle force of nature after breaking Safin

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The Independent Online

If it was only about the clean, enduring beauty of a wonderfully restored talent we could say now that Roger Federer is, once again, beyond challenge, even the one that faces him again tomorrow from the force of nature named Rafael Nadal.

Such, certainly, was the beguiling thought when Marat Safin, the 28-year-old Muscovite hell-raiser who won two Grand Slam titles when his mind was as concentrated on tennis as it ever would be, finally smashed his racket into the ground.

The gesture of despair came as Federer moved into the last strides of a semi-final victory so clinical, so complete the score of 6-3, 7-6, 6-4, compiled in one hour, 42 minutes, seemed not so much a record of events as a charitable understatement. It seemed mostly to resemble the kind of expression which comes to the face of a beaten fighter, one with title aspirations of his own, the moment he grasps that really the other man is operating on ground that is too high, too unattainable.

But then under the weight of the presence of the man-boy from Barcelona, the one who whipped him to the point of humiliation on his own terrain of red clay in Paris last month while winning his fourth straight French Open, it is of course about so much more than the way Federer was able to drain the hope and the creativity out of one of the few players – maybe the only one – with the proven range of touch and nerve that made him capable of imagining a way to beat either Federer or Nadal without embarrassing himself.

It is to do with repelling a physical force which some old tennis men are agreeing is possibly quite unprecedented in the history of their game.

It is about seizing one risk-laden chance and doing it quite flawlessly, because if you don't do that you suffer the fate which consumed Safin just when he thought he had fought his way into a match Federer, defending the title for a fifth time, had not so much dominated as annexed.

"When you have a chance against Federer you have to go for it, but the trouble is that under the pressure he creates everyone makes mistakes – except Nadal," said Safin.

"That is the big difference between Federer and the rest of the players – and the rest of the players and Nadal. Who will win on Sunday? Oh, it's such a tough one – I don't know that there's ever been a tougher one.

"The way Nadal is playing right now is just amazing and as the grass becomes slower, it also gives an advantage to him. It is a match you have to watch because you cannot really know how it is going to finish."

It seems that in the locker room as well as the galleries there is indeed a growing sense that this is Rafael Nadal's time, that however beautiful the contours and the nuances of the Federer game it is, 12 months after being put under such strain at the Centre Court, about to crumble under the pressure of a superior force.

Yet if Nadal pushed Federer to his limits in last year's final, and administered that terrible beating at Roland Garros, there was nothing cowed about the reigning champion as he moved, often quite exquisitely, towards the moment tomorrow afternoon when he again parts the ropes and enters the ring against Nadal.

The first set, completed in 25 minutes, was most remarkable in that Safin's handlers, who tend to change with each passing mood – one day he wants to play tennis for ever, the next he plans to retire his talent in favour of the pursuit of life its own self – decided not to throw in the towel. That must have been the temptation when Federer picked out his shots so easily he might have been sauntering into a shooting gallery.

He broke Safin at the first opportunity so effortlessly you might have thought the threat from a younger and more menacing gun was the figment of some disordered imagining. He made forehands that brought delayed applause, so startling and audacious were they in their conception and their execution. At one point in the third set, when the brief disturbance of the tie-break had been quelled, he casually flipped his racket through his legs for a very passable return.

"I was feeling happy and very relaxed," said Federer. "Really my return to another final has been great. I was winning my service games pretty comfortably except for one stage in the second set. I was feeling very good out on the court and I was able to break him in the first game of the match and the last. I think in between I was just really consistent. I didn't really give him too many chances, so it was a perfect game for me."

Yet the idea that Federer was simply gliding back to his old point of strength, that somehow he was re-exerting an almost mystical hold over the game he dominated for so long as he moved to within two of Pete Sampras's record mark of 14 Grand Slam titles was almost certainly an illusion entertained least seriously in the mind of the champion himself.

"There is no doubt there is a big question mark about this match," he said. "Rafa played so well in last year's final and it was disappointing to lose like that to him in Paris. He's a threat for any player he faces, and as for me he's got the winning record. Still, I think it will be an interesting match."

He says it with slightly narrowed eyes and a small smile, the one he used when he dismissed the concept of pre-final superstitions. "No, I'm not [Goran] Ivanisevic," he said. "Give me a different dish each day, a different restaurant, even a different bed. I have no problem."

Except the one that comes on to Centre Court with Rafael Nadal. Yet maybe, this one, too, will be negotiable. At the least, the forlorn, discarded racket of Marat Safin was saying it might just be so.

Threat of rain prompts plans for play on Monday

Unpromising weather forecasts have prompted All England Club officials to prepare contingency plans for extending the Championships to a third Monday for what would be the first time since 2001.

Suggestions that rain is 60 per cent likely today and tomorrow mean that those with tickets for matches on the two show courts should revise the terms of compensation in the event of the weather preventing play. A spokesman said that full refunds would be available if there was less than an hour's play, and half refunds in the event of less than two hours. He said those with tickets for Sunday would not have any advantage in seeking tickets for Monday.

"We would be expecting people to queue in the normal fashion, with gates opening at 10.30am," he said.

"In the past we have shut Church Road in order to carry out security searching without too much of a crush. It is likely we would be making between 10,000 and 11,000 tickets available on the day, with 600 available via the internet."

The capacity of Centre Court is 15,000 and that of Court One is 11,500.

Mike Rowbottom