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Men's final set: Nadal vs. the Giant Killer

Photo by Danny Aller

Photo by Danny Aller

WIMBLEDON, England -- Rafael Nadal knows exactly where he was, of course, on the first Sunday of July 2009, the only time in the past five years that the Wimbledon men's final went on without him.

"I watched at home," Nadal said. "On the sofa."

Yes, a year ago this time, he was in front of a TV in Spain, resting his aching knees, instead of wielding his racket on Centre Court, only the fifth player in the history of a tournament that began in 1877 unable to defend his title because of injury.

He's here now -- once again in the Wimbledon final, once again on top. The No. 1-seeded Nadal picked apart No. 4 Andy Murray of Britain, 6-4, 7-6 (6), 6-4, in the semifinals Friday to close in on a second trophy at the All England Club and eighth Grand Slam championship overall.

"For sure, that makes (it) more special," Nadal said, "because I worked a lot to be back, playing my best tennis. I did, so that's very important. Personal satisfaction, no?"

Nadal's wait to return to the Wimbledon final lasted 24 months, which probably seems like the blink of an eye to local fans. Their wait for a homegrown champion drags on: A British man hasn't won the title since Fred Perry in 1936; one hasn't even reached the final since Henry "Bunny" Austin in 1938.

"I obviously want to win for myself. I want to win for the guys I work with. I want to win for, you know, the U.K.," said Murray, who also lost in the semifinals last year and appeared on the verge of tears at his news conference. "A little bit more disappointing than other Grand Slams, because this one is, you know, the biggest one of the year for me."

Nadal has won his last 13 matches at the grass-court major, and 25 of 27, with the only losses coming against Roger Federer in the 2006 and 2007 finals. Nadal beat Federer in the epic 2008 title match, which ended at 9-7 in the fifth set as darkness descended.

On Sunday, Nadal will take on someone other than Federer in the Wimbledon final for the first time: 12th-seeded Tomas Berdych of the Czech Republic. Berdych followed up his quarterfinal upset of six-time champion Federer by ousting No. 3 Novak Djokovic of Serbia 6-3, 7-6 (9), 6-3 Friday.

This will be Nadal's 10th Grand Slam final; Berdych's first. Might Berdych feel some pressure because of that?

"I hope so," Nadal said with a smile, "but I don't think so."

With English soccer superstar David Beckham seated in the front row behind Murray's guest box at Centre Court, and about 15,000 others pulling for the Scotsman, too, Nadal was a picture of perpetual motion.

He repeatedly sprinted from one corner to another, tracking down strokes that would be clean winners against anyone else. A few times, members of the eager-to-roar crowd would applaud, thinking Murray won a point, only to be hushed by other spectators as play carried on.

When Nadal won two points in a row early in the second set with superb defense, Murray put his palms up as if to ask, "How many great shots do I need to hit?"

"His backhand's good. His serve's good. His forehand's good. His movement is good," Murray said afterward. "He does everything really, really well."

Two qualities Murray neglected to mention: Nadal's all-out intensity, and his propensity for coming up big at the biggest times.

"In the crucial points today, Rafael was really good," said Nadal's uncle and coach, Toni, "and Murray was not too good."

The only break point of the first set arrived with Murray serving at 4-all. Nadal returned a 129 mph serve, then smacked a cross-court winner with his uppercut forehand, slathered with topspin and announced with an intimidating grunt. Nadal broke when Murray pushed a forehand wide.

Murray's first break points came 70 minutes in, ahead 4-3 in the second set. On the first, he netted a return as a cell phone rang in the stands. On the second, he missed a backhand while trying in vain to handle -- what else? -- a fierce forehand from Nadal.

Nadal's most obvious blip came at 5-all the tiebreaker, when he double-faulted to give Murray a set point, drawing a raucous cheer. Later, Nadal would acknowledge that key mistake, but he also noted: "For the rest of the important moments, I played very well."

That is true.

With Murray serving and one point from tying things at a set apiece, he faulted, eliciting a loud "Awwwwww-w-w" from the fans. He got his second serve in, and hit a good running backhand passing shot, but Nadal reached down for a volley winner to make it 6-6.

On the next point, Nadal's cross-court backhand clipped the tape and flew past Murray, who -- suddenly trailing 7-6 -- pounded the net with his racket. A moment later, Murray was chucking that racket, because Nadal converted his first set point with a forehand winner.

For two full sets, Murray played as well as -- or maybe better than -- Nadal, and had nothing to show for it. Up to there, Murray had 27 winners, six more than Nadal, and the same number of unforced errors, 12. Plus, Murray actually won more points in the second set, 42-41.

"You're not going to be able to play every single point on your terms against the best player in the world, one of the best players ever. You can't," Murray said.

He made one last stand at the start of the third, breaking Nadal for the only time and eventually leading 4-2.

Yet he wouldn't win another game. At 4-3, Murray saved one break point with a service winner at 118 mph, but handed over another by double-faulting, then put a forehand in the net for 4-all. Nadal broke again two games later and dropped to his back at the baseline, thrilled to know he'll be playing again Sunday.

"I had chances in all of the sets," Murray said. "He just played better than me."

Nadal tends to do that against most players. He's 7-3 against Berdych, including six consecutive victories.

But the 24-year-old Berdych never has played with the confidence and patience he's displayed while becoming the first Czech man to reach the Wimbledon men's final since Ivan Lendl in 1987.

"The feeling is absolutely amazing. It is really tough to describe," Berdych said. "Every young kid, from the first time he hits the ball and thinks to be a tennis player, this is the dream."

He was broken only once against Djokovic, displaying the same booming serve and forehand that carried Berdych to the French Open semifinals a month ago and past Federer on Wednesday.

"I'm looking forward to the next one," Berdych said, "and definitely not (fearing) anybody."

Berdych vs. Djokovic also hinged on a tiebreaker. Berdych took a 6-3 lead, but blew his first five set points, while Djokovic let two slip away.

On Berdych's third, up 6-5, they produced a 23-stroke exchange. Playing fantastic defense, Djokovic launched a lob that landed on the baseline but was called out by a line judge. Berdych let up and, his back to the net, casually hit the ball wide. Djokovic challenged the call, and the replay showed his shot was good, so chair umpire Carlos Ramos ruled the point should be replayed.

"What do you mean?" Djokovic screamed, arguing he should be awarded the point. He crouched, pointed and finally gave up, but he also won the do-over with a backhand for 6-all, then bellowed and gestured for the crowd to make more noise.

Djokovic's two set points came at 7-6 -- erased by a service winner at 127 mph -- and at 9-8 -- erased by a forehand. Then, with Berdych ahead 10-9, Djokovic ended the set by hitting one of his eight double-faults. He walked to the sideline and knocked over his chair by whacking it with his racket, drawing a code violation warning from the chair umpire. Djokovic applauded sarcastically, and that pretty much was it for him.

As Berdych described it: "Then he starts to be really, really down -- more mentally than physically."

Berdych's major final debut comes in his 28th try, the second-most major tournaments anyone has played before reaching a title match.

Nadal, meanwhile, won his fifth French Open last month, regaining that title after losing in the fourth round a year ago. He later would say his knees were hurting, part of a tough 2009. Nadal missed Wimbledon, began a drought of 11 months without a title, gave up the No. 1 ranking, and had to deal with his parents' separation.

"A very difficult year. Many problems with the knees. Then our loss in Roland Garros. Altogether, it was a bad year," Uncle Toni said.

Rafael Nadal's coach sighed, then broke into a wide grin.

"Now," he said, "life has changed."