June 10, 2006

Federer, Nadal prepare for classic on clay

By Bill Barclay

PARIS (Reuters) - After two weeks slugging it out on the
punishing clay at Roland Garros, world number one Roger Federer
faces the biggest challenge of his career on Sunday.

If the 24-year-old Swiss can overcome defending champion
Rafael Nadal in the French Open final, he will have gone a long
way to justifying the assertion of many that he is the best
tennis player ever.

Federer will join Australian Rod Laver and American Don
Budge as the only men to win four consecutive grand slams. It
has only been achieved once in the professional era -- Laver's
second Grand Slam of 1969.

"It would be something quite incredible," said Federer, who
holds seven grand slam titles but is through to only his first
Roland Garros final. "It hasn't happened for such a long time.

"To have created this chance, it's unbelievable.

"If I win the tournament, it will be something special
because I'll be winning two things at the same time."

To do so the world number one will have to beat a seemingly
invincible opponent on his favorite surface. Nadal has won his
last 59 matches on clay, including three victories over

The 20-year-old Spaniard, though, had to save two match
points in his most recent win over the Swiss, a five-set
thriller at the Rome Masters last month.

"I'm feeling good enough and know that I'm playing well,"
said Federer. "I've got to play like I did in Rome: aggressive,
patient and everything. That seemed that was the way to go at

Federer's progress to the final has been smoother than
expected on a surface he has found harder to master than
hardcourt or grass.

He has dropped only two sets, the same as Nadal, and
managed to produce his very best tennis to subdue David
Nalbandian in the semi-finals when the Argentine took a set and
3-0 lead.

As second seed Nadal knows, that is the mark of a champion.

"The characteristic of the big champions is to play good in
the difficult moments, with the serve, with the backhand, with
the forehand, with the drop, with the lob, anything," said the

In Federer's case, the 'anything' was an extraordinary,
improvised squash-style forehand that swung his match against


Nadal is attempting to double his grand slam tally and
become the first man to successfully defend the French Open
title since Brazil's Gustavo Kuerten in 2001.

The Spaniard likes to be photographed biting his trophies
after victory and he has developed a pretty sound hold on
Federer having won five of their six encounters. He has
defeated the Swiss in three finals this year alone.

Unlike last year, though, when Nadal beat Argentine Mariano
Puerta in four sets in the final to cap a remarkable Roland
Garros debut, the Mallorcan will not enjoy the support of
neutrals on center court on Sunday.

"I know it is very tough and very difficult," he said. "I
have to play one hundred percent. I need play very good match
if I want to win. I need play my best. If I don't play my best,
I'm going to lose.

"We're going to have our fourth final of the year, so maybe
that's good for the tennis maybe. I don't know if is a big
rivalry but I enjoy playing these big matches."

Nadal's four-set win over Frenchman Paul-Henri Mathieu in
the third round lasted almost five hours and if Sunday's match
turns into a marathon, it is likely to favor the Spaniard, who
has irked his rivals this year with his slow play when serving.

Nadal, though, has nothing but respect for Federer.

"He's one of the best of the history. He's a superstar of
the world, not just in tennis, in all sports. He's a normal
guy, he's a nice guy and I have a good relationship with him. I
admire his humility."

For the first time since 1984 the top two seeds have made
it through to the men's final at Roland Garros.

On that occasion second seed Ivan Lendl recovered from two
sets down to beat number one John McEnroe. Prepare for
something even better on Sunday.