Both Wimbledon men's semis today feature dynamite, must-see matchups

Photo by Danny Aller

Photo by Danny Aller

WIMBLEDON, England -- The British lady with the straw hat sitting in the stands behind Rafael Nadal's chair began the Wimbledon quarterfinal match cheering for the other player, Robin Soderling.

By the third set, as Nadal took control, the woman had switched allegiances.

"Vamos!" she shouted between points.

The Nadal bandwagon is becoming bigger now that he's back in the semifinals at Wimbledon. And with six-time champion Roger Federer eliminated, the top-ranked Nadal becomes the favorite.

The Spaniard plays Friday against No. 4-seeded Andy Murray, trying to become the first British man in 72 years to reach the Wimbledon final. The other semifinal pits No. 3 Novak Djokovic against No. 12 Tomas Berdych, who upset Federer on Wednesday.

It's an impressive cast, even with Federer absent from the semifinals for the first time since 2002. Murray and Berdych have been long touted as future Grand Slam champions, while Djokovic has rediscovered the form that helped him win the 2008 Australian Open.

And then there's Nadal, the King of Clay who has also become a formidable force on grass. He was the runner-up to Federer at Wimbledon in 2006 and 2007, won when they met again in the 2008 final and missed last year's tournament because of knee tendinitis.

Nadal has won 12 matches in a row at the All England Club, and 23 straight at Wimbledon against players other than Federer.

"He's obviously a very tough player on any surface," Murray said, "but he plays great tennis here."

In a tournament full of surprises, one of the biggest has been the absence of rain. With the grass worn away in the area where Nadal works, he loves the dry conditions.

"Lots of clay behind the baseline," he said with a grin. "You can move well. So, perfect conditions."

The five-time French Open champion is trying to win Roland Garros and Wimbledon back-to-back, a feat he achieved two years ago. His prospects looks iffy last week when he trailed Robin Haase after three sets in round two, and when he trailed Philipp Petzschner after three sets in round three, and when he lost the first five games Wednesday against Soderling.

But Nadal rallied each time. The longer the point and the longer the match, the tougher he becomes.

His right knee flared up last week, and he occasionally clutches his lower back between points, but he said he felt fine in the past two matches. After a practice session Thursday on Court 16, he showed plenty of spring in his step while taking part in a four-man game of soccer using a tennis ball.

"I'm very happy how I'm playing, how I arrive to the semifinals," Nadal said. "I know I'm going to have a difficult match against Andy. But I am playing well."

Nadal is 7-3 against Murray, but the Scotsman won the last two times they met in a Grand Slam tournament. That includes a victory in the Australian Open quarterfinals in January, when Nadal retired three games from defeat with an injury to that troublesome right knee.

Nadal won the only time they met on grass -- in the 2008 Wimbledon quarterfinals. But Murray believes he has discovered the secret to beating Nadal: "Play well. Really, really, really well."

Their Centre Court match will be center stage in Britain. The world's oldest tennis tournament hasn't had a homegrown men's finalist since Bunny Austin in 1938, and there have since been nine consecutive losses in Wimbledon semifinals for British men. The last to win the title was Fred Perry in 1934-36.

"It has obviously been a huge, huge wait for us," Murray said.

He meant "wait," not "weight." While Murray carries the expectations of Britain, he said he doesn't regard them as a burden, and in fact ended a lengthy slump by playing some of his best tennis this year at Wimbledon.

He's in the semifinals for the second year in a row.

"The crowd obviously would love to see a British player win Wimbledon," he said. "You just learn how to put everything to the back of your mind. I don't think you can be taught how to do it. I think it's something that you're either able to do or you can't. I've been lucky enough the last few years to not let that affect me."

While Murray speaks of a home-court advantage and Nadal has his bandwagon, the tournament is not without Djokovic fans. One sounded off when Djokovic hit a cross-court winner early in his quarterfinal win over Yen-hsun Lu.

"You're a genius, Novak! Genius!" the man shouted. Djokovic waved his racket to acknowledge the compliment.

Strokes of genius have helped the Serb reach the Wimbledon semifinals for the second time, and he'll climb to No. 2 in the rankings next week, overtaking Federer.

"I was struggling with the level of my performance the last five or six months," Djokovic said. "It was a lot of ups and downs. But right now, I'm playing great."

Berdych's game is also on the rise, and he's the first Czech man to make the Wimbledon semis since Ivan Lendl 20 years ago. Long regarded as an underachiever, the 24-year-old Berdych reached a Grand Slam semifinal for the first time a month ago at the French Open, and the win over Federer suggested he's on the verge of a bigger breakthrough.

Why the recent improvement?

"It's many things," he said. "You get more and more experience ... to be more focused, mentally stronger than before. That's what you need. It's many things together. They are all together like in one pack. It works pretty well."