Pumped-up Nadal has speed and power to seize champion's crown

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The Independent Online

Sometimes repetition can be extremely boring, but not when you are talking tennis and a match between Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal. So this afternoon's Wimbledon men's final, our dodgy climate permitting, will be yet another in the ongoing rivalry which continues to fascinate and which Nadal leads by 11 wins to six.

Will Roger make it six Wimbledons in a row? Can Rafa come up third time lucky in a Wimbledon final? Has Federer's humiliation in the recent French Open final left its mark in his mind? Both are talking a combination of respect and confidence, since this is a rivalry free of snarls – not the commonest occurrence in professional sport.

After what has to be classed, by his own standards, as a poor start to the 2008 season, Federer has rounded into form with perfect timing for his annual reunion with grass. Nadal, having torched all opposition once again in the clay season, is attempting to do what has not been done since Bjorn Borg in 1980 – following up Roland Garros glory with a Wimbledon win. What that did to Borg's mind is history, and for Nadal it is more a matter of what the demands of winning are doing to his body, bound and bandaged as it is.

Nadal dismissed the Roland Garros thrashing as irrelevant, while cherishing it. "Playing three finals here, I don't have to show anybody I can play good on grass, so if I win [on] Sunday my career will change a little bit. And if he beats me I will congratulate him, like every year.

"But every year is different, every match is different. It depends how you get to the final, how you feel when you get there, how you are playing. Last year I was very close. I hope this time I will be a bit better and have some chances to win. And if I have that chance, I hope to win this time.

"But I don't want to speak about a win right now. If I am holding the title, ask me then how I feel. But for me Roger is the best player in history. I don't know about the best on grass because [Pete] Sampras has seven titles. Roger has five, but hopefully not six this year."

As for Federer, while pronouncing himself "feeling the best way I can feel" yesterday, the Swiss did indulge in a mild complaint about the slowness of Rafa between points.

It was a whinge rather than a snarl but it was mildly surprising even so, considering the respect each carries for the other. "When we played each other a few years ago I felt he was really slow, and it was irritating. The umpire was always giving him a warning but never a point penalty. But he has speeded up now." The Spaniard has certainly speeded up on court, and it is his amazing reactions and brutal power which constitute the biggest threats to the comfort zone Federer has inhabited for the past two weeks as he has cruised through the draw, never conceding a set and only dropping serve twice.

There are other statistics to offer Federer a cushion – a record winning streak of 65 on grass during which he has only once been extended to five sets, by Nadal in last year's final. Victory today would be his 13th Grand Slam title, one short of the Sampras record. It would also surpass Bjorn Borg's five here, making him the only man in the Open era (since 1968) to have won six straight Wimbledons.

The German Rainer Schüttler, who gave Nadal a harder time in Friday's semi-final than anyone in the Spaniard's camp had anticipated, had practised with Federer during the week and was full of praise. "It's amazing how easy Roger makes it always look," he said. "He just seems he's not even trying. Rafa is the opposite, so pumped and always there. I would like Roger to make the six in a row. We are friends, so it would be really nice. Rafa would also deserve it for the way he has played. Whoever wins will be a great champion."

Federer says it is up to history to decide whether theirs is one of the great rivalries. Federer has been world No 1 for 231 weeks; Nadal has dogged him as No 2 since July 2005, a total of 154 weeks. Federer calls this "quite incredible", adding: "When you are right in the middle of it you can't make a judgement about rivalry. Maybe in five years' time we will see how it is looked at."

As for the fact that he is seen in some quarters as something less than an overwhelming favourite this time round, the normally patient Federer showed a rare touch of irritation. "Look, I don't think it matters a lot if I'm favourite or not. I'm on an incredible winning streak on grass, and first somebody has to break that. Then perhaps we can start talking differently."

With reason, Federer calls his total of four games in the recent French Open final "sort of a disappointment" and insists: "Rafa deserves all the respect he gets. He has definitely had the best-ever start to a season. He's been playing consistently well. His clay-court season was phenomenal again. But for me that [Paris] final is out of the picture. I hardly remember anything of it, it went so quick."

Federer says Nadal's challenge for his No 1 spot is something he relishes. "Rafa is a great competitor. He's got a winning record over me. He's now become so good on all surfaces that he is a real threat. Now this is crunch time, against somebody who has chances to beat you on a given day. That can make you more nervous but I have been in this position a whole lot of times and I am playing well. But I can't control everything that comes from the other side of the net, so it will be a relief once the final is over."

Hit for six: why Rafa can beat Roger

1 Self-belief: Nadal's fourth French Open win, followed by his first grass title at Queen's, have convinced him that he can beat anybody on any surface.

2 Aggression: Sometimes slow to warm up, when Nadal hits his stride he resembles a boxer in his determination to score a quick knockout.

3 Speed: Nobody in tennis is quicker around the court, especially when moving from side to side on the baseline.

4 Weight of shot: His biggest improvement since Wimbledon last year, he now strikes his groundstrokes harder and lower over the net.

5 Intensity: From his youngest days this has been a star quality from someone who plays every point as if it is match point.

6 Body language: Without being arrogant he bestrides the court in a way which says: "I'm relaxed, everything is under control."

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