WIMBLEDON, England – Roger Federer sneaked a peek at Bjorn Borg in the Centre Court stands, then carried on with the business at hand.
One eye on the past, one on the present.
Troubled little in a straight-set semifinal win Saturday, his 33rd consecutive victory at Wimbledon and record 53rd in a row on grass, Federer strolled into what amounts to a two-sided challenge in the final.
Today, Federer will try to beat his present-day nemesis Rafael Nadal, in order to equal past star Borg’s mark of five straight Wimbledon championships.
“It is tricky when you see him sitting there, because he is a living legend,” Federer said, sounding something like a teen who spotted his favorite rock star. “I have so much respect for him that it is great that he’s here. I hope I can do the job tomorrow.”
Because all the rain during the tournament jumbled the schedule, Federer’s quick semifinal was followed by the women’s final Saturday. Under a blue sky dotted with puffs of clouds, Venus Williams claimed her fourth Wimbledon title with a matter-of-fact 6-4, 6-1 victory over Marion Bartoli of France.
“I peak at this tournament,” Williams said. “My sixth Slam – I want some more.”
At No. 31, she’s the lowest-ranked women’s champion at Wimbledon, and Bartoli is ranked only No. 19.
In contrast, just like last year at the All England Club, and the past two years at the French Open, the men’s championship will be decided by No. 1 vs. No. 2, Federer vs. Nadal, Roger vs. Rafa. Each of those earlier Grand Slam finals went four sets, with Federer winning on the grass, and Nadal winning on the clay.
“Sure, he’s the favorite. No one has any doubt about this,” Nadal said, ignoring his 8-4 career record against Federer. “But I’m going to try my best, no?”
One would assume he also will have to be at his best to have a chance on this surface against Federer, someone so talented on the court and so universally well-liked off it that Borg said Saturday he wouldn’t mind seeing the Swiss star equal his 1976-80 reign at Wimbledon.
Federer gave himself a chance by beating No. 12 Richard Gasquet of France 7-5, 6-3, 6-4 in a semifinal that was competitive for a set. Nadal advanced when No. 4 Novak Djokovic of Serbia quit because of an infected blister on his left little toe while trailing 3-6, 6-1, 4-1.
Here’s how relaxed Federer was against Gasquet, a 21-year-old playing in his first Grand Slam semifinal. In addition to taking time to enjoy Borg’s presence, Federer also glanced at the scoreboard during changeovers, keeping track of what was happening in Nadal-Djokovic.
Federer had noticed Djokovic was trying to deal with his foot problem in the locker room and later said he was surprised Nadal dropped the opening set. Federer, too, was in danger of losing his opening set against Gasquet, who knocked off No. 3 Andy Roddick in the quarterfinals after falling behind 2-0 in sets.
There were two key sequences in Federer-Gasquet, and the first came in the 11th game. With Federer serving at 5-5, Gasquet smacked a cross-court forehand winner to earn two break points at 15-40 – one point from serving for the set.
But Federer responded with all the skill of a 10-time major champion and the savvy of, at 25, a relative veteran. First came one of his 20 aces, on a corner at 127 mph, to erase one break point. Then came a forehand winner down the line to erase the other. Federer took the next two points, too, to hold for 6-5.
“If I (won) this break point,” Gasquet said, “everything can happen.”
Instead, beginning with that four-point run, Federer won 44 of the last 54 points on his serve.
The next game was key, also, because Gasquet was one point from forcing a tiebreaker at 40-15. But Federer put together another four-point streak, with help from a suddenly tight Gasquet, who slapped two volleys into the net.
And that, essentially, was that.
Maybe that’s just what happens when a guy never before past the fourth round at a major faces a guy playing in his record 13th straight semifinal at a major. Or when a guy who’s never been ranked in the top 10 faces a guy who’s been No. 1 for a record 179 weeks in a row.
“I was tired,” explained Gasquet, whose match against Roddick ended at 8 p.m., while Federer was off the court 31/2 hours earlier Friday.
The Frenchman also needed treatment for a left ankle problem in the second set Saturday.
That was nothing compared to Djokovic, who tried to grin and bear it against the relentless Nadal with a bad toe plus a bothersome lower back, not to mention sheer exhaustion from playing on a sixth consecutive day thanks to rain interruptions.
“It’s been a very strange two weeks,” Djokovic said.
He also stopped during his 2006 French Open quarterfinal against Nadal, and lost in three sets to the Spaniard in this year’s semifinals at Roland Garros.
Nadal, of course, has won three French Opens in a row, something no one had done since Borg. Now, like his rival Federer, Nadal is chasing Borg again, trying to become the first man to win at Roland Garros and the All England Club in the same year since the Swede did it every year from 1978-80.
But Federer stands in Nadal’s way, just as Nadal stands in Federer’s.
“It’s very fitting,” Federer said. “I’m just hoping for one more good match.”