Nadal on trail of the ghost of 1966

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The Independent Online

The England footballer Peter Crouch was in the Court One crowd yesterday to see how quarter-finals are won, as Rafael Nadal overpowered his fellow left-hander Jarkko Nieminen in straight sets to become the first French Open champion since Andre Agassi in 1999 to reach a Wimbledon semi-final.

Not since Bjorn Borg in 1980, six years before Nadal was born, has the winner at Roland Garros actually triumphed at Wimbledon, and the Spaniard later declared it "unbelievable" that he had reached the last four.

But he is visibly becoming more confident on grass, and must be starting to fancy his chances. After all, he has twice before won a Grand Slam quarter-final, and twice before gone on to win the title, albeit on French clay.

That he would make it through to meet Marcos Baghdatis today - and what a match that could be - never looked in the slightest doubt. Nieminen gave Nadal a fright on clay in Barcelona earlier this year, leading 6-4, 4-1 before losing. But here he was outclassed, and although he competed well from the baseline, he missed far too many volleys, and landed only 51 per cent of his first serves, 20 per cent fewer than his opponent. When a man returns the ball as hard as Nadal, you need a first serve in good working order. The second seed duly completed a 6-3, 6-4, 6-4 victory in two hours, 15 minutes, and will be delighted to have made relatively short work of it, given that Baghdatis had the day off.

Afterwards, Nieminen, seeded 22, had no complaints, not even when asked about Nadal's copious use of the towel. There can't be many men from Majorca who come to south-west London and feel the need to towel themselves down every 45 seconds, but Nieminen refused to take the bait, even when it was further pointed out to him that Agassi, after losing to Nadal in the third round, had noted how long he seems to take between points. "I just concentrate on my own game," said the Finn, diplomatically.

Whatever, nobody can cast doubt over Nadal's raw talent. Many wonderful clay-court players down the years have been unable to prosper at Wimbledon, but he, it seems, is not one of them. On clay, his success is based on his remarkable powers of retrieval, but with every passing day he is adding variety to his grass-court game, and even seized a series of opportunities to attack the net yesterday. It remains unlikely that he will be spotted at the Homebase in Wimbledon Park buying seed, moss-killer and a lawnmower, but he is manifestly learning to enjoy grass. "I just have 20 years old and I need improve and improve always," he said. His English will get better, too.

As for his first Wimbledon quarter-final, it would plainly be wrong to say that Nadal did not break sweat: a bundle of drenched towels prove otherwise, not to mention some impressive grunting and groaning that was occasionally matched by his opponent, giving the crowd something to chuckle about.

There was also the almost obligatory lone cry of "C'mon Tim!" in the third set, causing a further ripple of merriment. It was appreciated particularly by one Spanish journalist, who kept repeating "Vamos Teem!" under his breath, and heaving with laughter. Whether at the mordant, ironic wit of the British, or at the conspicuous absence of a home-grown player in the later stages of these championships, it was hard to know.

Nieminen had only a handful of chances to frustrate the second seed, and failed to take any of them. At 4-5 in the second set, having just delivered a pair of double-faults to lose his own service game, he found himself 0-30 up against the Nadal serve. But Nadal simply cranked up the tempo and soon closed out the set. In the third set the Finn had a break point to lead 3-1, but was again outgunned. Afterwards he shared Nadal's surprise that the Spaniard was playing so well on grass, but stopped short of tipping him to win the title. "For me, [Roger Federer] is still a very strong favourite," he said. "But you never know." First, of course, both Federer and Nadal have semi-finals day to negotiate.

But already Nadal will be reflecting on the fact that it is exactly 40 years since the only Spanish victory in the men's singles at Wimbledon; indeed the man who won that year, Manolo Santana, is here urging him on. It is not only England's footballers who have to grapple with the ghosts of 1966.

And it was not only Crouch, the man nicknamed "El Asparagus" by Spanish newspapers, who left Court One yesterday walking tall.

Men's semi-finals: Head-to-head

Roger Federer (1) v Jonas Bjorkman (Federer leads 3-0)

2001 Wimbledon, grass, outdoor, R32, Federer, 7-6, 6-3, 7-6.

2003 Marseilles, hard, indoor, Final, Federer, 6-2, 7-6.

2004 Rome Masters, clay, outdoor, R64, Federer, 7-6, 6-3.

Rafael Nadal (2) v Marcos Baghdatis (18) (Nadal leads 1-0)

2006 Indian Wells, hard, outdoor, QF, 7-5, 6-0.

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