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A mighty war at men's semi-final

Though Nadal and Federer's clash is tantalizing, first time semi-finalists Bjorkman and Baghdatis cannot be underestimated for their A-grade play at Wimbledon so far.

india Updated: Jul 07, 2006 19:07 IST
Agencies

Rafael Nadal holds three balls in his right hand, studies them, discards one, pockets another and begins bouncing the third. He pauses to wipe his racket hand, brushes his hair and dribbles the ball some more. He rubs his cheek, tugs at his shorts, dribbles again and finally serves.

Often the point ends right there.

With all the time Nadal takes between points, he has a surprisingly potent serve and is ahead of schedule at Wimbledon.

The methodical king of clay made the semifinals for the first time yesterday, beating Jarkko Nieminen 6-3, 6-4, 6-4.

"It's a surprise to be in the semifinals, no?" Nadal said. "It's an unbelievable tournament for me."

The Spaniard joined two other improbable semifinalists, unseeded Swede Jonas Bjorkman and Cypriot Marcos Baghdatis. Nadal will play Baghdatis today, and Bjorkman will face three-time defending champion Roger Federer of Switzerland.

It's the first all-European men's final four at Wimbledon in 16 years.

Unlike many players raised on clay, Nadal embraced the challenge of adapting to grass but predicted he would need several years to become a title contender at Wimbledon. Instead, he has quickly found his footing on the lawns of the All England Club.

Only 20 and already a two-time French Open champion, he's trying to become the second Spanish man to win Wimbledon. He would join 1966 champion Manolo Santana, who offered Nadal encouragement in the locker room before the quarterfinals.

Three-time defending champion Roger Federer, riding a 46-match win streak on grass, is due up first on Centre Court against 34-year-old Swede Jonas Bjorkman, the oldest semifinalist since Jimmy Connors in 1987.

"I like grass courts," Baghdatis said. "It's pretty good to play on it. It fits to my game. I'm playing really aggressive and stuff. There's nothing I don't like."
The most unlikely of the semifinalists is Bjorkman, who last advanced this far at a major event nine years ago. His ranking fell last August to 129th, his lowest in a decade, and he considered retiring from singles to concentrate on doubles, where he has won eight major titles.

Baghdatis achieved a career breakthrough by finishing runner-up to Federer at the Australian Open, and he has soared from 56th to 16th in the rankings this year. Less than three weeks ago, his record for the year was 2-10. But the Swede's about to face Federer with a shot at his first Grand Slam final.

Bjorkman, 34, is the oldest men's semifinalist at Wimbledon since Jimmy Connors in 1987. Baghdatis, emerging from a slump that began after his surprising run to the Australian Open final, remains the lone Cypriot to play in a major event.

"It's a dream come true to have an opportunity to play the Wimbledon semifinal against the best player in the world right now - probably going to be the best player ever," Bjorkman said.


And then there's the top-ranked Federer, who has won an Open-era record 46 consecutive grass-court matches and 26 in a row at the All England Club.
"For sure the king is Roger," Nadal said. "On grass."
Federer's nemesis may be gaining on him. Since losing the first two sets against qualifier Robert Kendrick in the second round, Nadal has won 12 consecutive sets.
And while the left-hander lacks the powerful serve and attacking approach of Federer and others who fare well on grass, he has not been broken in the past three rounds while facing only two break points.
"He's playing really well on grass," Nieminen said. "It's really surprising."
Nadal's progress was delayed a day because rain Wednesday forced postponement of his quarterfinal. But he remains on course for another showdown with Federer, who is 0-4 this year against Nadal including the French Open final and 54-0 against everyone else.
While the prospect of Nadal vs. Federer is tantalizing, Nadal vs. Baghdatis offers rivalry potential, too. Both are precocious, charismatic and eager to show they can win on any surface.

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