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Saturday, January 31, 2009

Rafael Nadal to play Roger Federer in Australian Open final

The chase for history is compelling on its own. With a win Sunday over Rafael Nadal in the final of the Australian Open, Roger Federer would tie Pete Sampras as the top winner of major tennis tournaments with 14.

That will add to the argument that Federer is the greatest tennis player ever, a designation Rod Laver, whose name is on the stadium court here, said would not be wrong.

"We'll have those arguments forever," Laver said. "But Roger's name is there."

But almost as compelling as Federer's history chase Sunday will be to see Nadal's physical recovery from his 5-hour, 14-minute semifinal defeat of Spanish countryman Fernando Verdasco, 6-7 (4), 6-4, 7-6 (2), 6-7 (1), 6-4. The match began at 7:30 p.m. Friday and ended at 1:07 a.m. today.

The Australian Open has traditionally played its men's semifinals on different days, so Federer completed a much less physically taxing semifinal win in straight sets over Andy Roddick on Thursday night.

In 2008, Nadal took over the No. 1 ranking that Federer had held at the end of every year since 2003 and beat Federer on the grass courts of Wimbledon last July, a loss that left Federer teary-eyed and signaled to some that the 27-year-old Swiss player might have permanently given his top spot to the 22-year-old Nadal.

"People have been pretty quick to write me off," Federer said. "I mean I won the U.S. Open last year, and I finished second at the French Open. I think it was a pretty good year."

Federer also dismissed the advantage he would seem to have in Sunday's final with his extra rest day combined with the physical pounding Nadal took in a match where his opponent hit 95 winners and where both players were grunting on their strokes as early as the first set.

"He's still got a day off," Federer said. "It's not like he has to play right now. It's just the way it is. I get two days off, one guy only one day. At the U.S. Open we get no days off. Let's be happy to have a day off."

The career edge goes to Nadal, 12-6, with wins in three of their last four meetings including last year's 6-4, 6-4, 6-7 (5), 6-7 (8), 9-7 Wimbledon classic when Nadal became the first man since Bjorn Borg in 1980 to win both the French Open and Wimbledon in the same year.

Patrick McEnroe, former player, U.S. Davis Cup coach and ESPN commentator, called Nadal's semifinal win over Verdasco, "the most physically punishing hard-court match I have ever seen filled with powerful shot-making, relentless defense and phenomenal endurance -- of mind and body.

For the record: An earlier version of this report said that Roger Federer had the career edge over Rafael Nadal, 12-6. It is Nadal who has won 12 of the 18 meetings against Federer.

"And Rafa will have to be superhuman to overcome that plus a fresh, eager Federer."

Nadal wouldn't criticize the schedule.

He didn't finish his post-match news conference until 3:30 a.m. this morning.

"You know, you still have one day off," Nadal said. "So that's the sport. But for sure it's a little bit more fair if you play the same day. This year it's a little bit unlucky to play one match like this, too hard. So for sure Roger is going to be in much better physical shape than me in the final."

McEnroe called Nadal "the Lance Armstrong of tennis. If anyone can bounce back from such an effort," McEnroe said, "it would be Nadal. What can he do? Rest, sleep, massage, eat and drink as much as possible."

This will be Nadal and Federer's seventh Grand Slam championship matchup, and while Federer has those 13 major titles, Nadal has won four of the six head-to-head finals.

"The rivalry is the best in sports, period," McEnroe said. "The records of both speak for themselves, and their games and their personalities are so strikingly effective yet totally different."

Martina Navratilova, who is calling the matches for the Tennis Channel, said the Nadal-Verdasco match was one of the greatest matches she's seen and she thinks Nadal will be at a disadvantage Sunday.

"No matter how great shape you're in, it's a disadvantage," he said. "They really need to revisit that scheduling."

Federer disagrees. "I don't think Rafa will struggle," he said. "I see the point, but I don't think it's a valuable one on this occasion."

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