LONDON // Even Roger Federer at the peak of his powers would have struggled to contain the sheer brilliance of Rafael Nadal in Friday's thrilling Wimbledon semi-final against Andy Murray, the forlorn British title hope. Tomas Berdych, the tall Czech with the destructive serve and booming forehand, is saddled this afternoon with the task of seeking to do what Federer has been unable to accomplish in six of the last seven finals he has contested with his arch-rival and nemesis.
Berdych, who followed up his impressive defeat of Federer with a surprisingly facile victory over of the new world No 2 Novak Djokovic, will become the most worthy of champions if he completes a magnificent hat-trick by adding Nadal to his list of Centre Court conquests. It is asking a lot, though. Splendidly though Berdych has performed to qualify for his first grand slam final at the age of 24, beating two of the top three players in the world, the 12th seed will need to rise to an even greater level to stand any chance of denying Nadal a second Wimbledon triumph.
And if he is able to find an extra gear to surpass his career-high performance levels here, Nadal is likely to be able to find one, too. It was fascinating to see the Spaniard raise his game each time he needed to as he kept a determined and dangerous Murray at bay in what was a keenly-fought battle despite its misleading straight-sets verdict. On every occasion that Murray threatened to take a foothold in the match, Nadal would lift his performance and quell the threat, eventually securing a 6-4, 7-6, 6-4 victory.
That has been the hallmark of Nadal as he has established himself high on the list of the all-time tennis greats, mainly through his dominance at Roland Garros, but more recently at the Australian Open and here at Wimbledon. He has twice been a beaten finalist at the All England Club before he finally triumphed two years ago. The Spaniard is brimming with confidence about his prospects for today, but he is enormously respectful of Berdych's achievements over the past fortnight.
"It is going to be a very difficult match," Nadal said. "Tomas is a very aggressive player who has a strong serve and hits some very good flat shots from the baseline. "No one opponent could be more difficult than Tomas to play in this final." That said, the main threat to Nadal's ability to threaten Federer's record of 16 grand slam triumphs, appears to be his own body. His 24-year-old frame is now less muscle-bound than it was when he first exploded on to the global scene - but is creaking from the wear and tear of countless baseline rallies.
Nadal warned as he prepared for his 10th grand slam final that the dodgy knees that kept him off the circuit for much of the second half of last year could let him down again at any moment. He was happier, however, to report that the twinges of pain he suffered during the first week have been absent since. While Nadal fears that he is now coming down from his physical peak in the game, Berdych, at the same age, is relishing getting close to his.
"I feel a lot stronger this year," he said. "I'm also much stronger mentally, which is encouraging." Those greater combined strengths saw Berdych, in his eighth year as a professional, go agonisingly close to reaching his first grand slam final at Roland Garros last month. He was denied a dress rehearsal for today's final, however, by the willpower of Sweden's Robin Soderling, who prevailed in a deciding semi-final set.
"This can be a really tough sport where you can very easily lose in the first round to players you are expected to beat," Berdych said. "So you need to be tough yourself to deal with it. "I feel I'm in a different position now regarding how I approach my matches. I have been playing well here and it is important now that I bring the form that has got me this far with me on court for the final." firstname.lastname@example.org