Nadal Ahead of the Game
Byline: IVAN SPECK
THEY said he could not play on grass.
They whispered dark nothings that linked him with doping allegations.
They complained that he took three minutes of fiddling between points.
Rafael Nadal has endured a fortnight of negativity and yet here he is in the Wimbledon semifinals, the only man with a realistic chance of denying Roger Federer a fourth successive title.
Delayed by a combination of rain and Jonas Bjorkman's victory over Radek Stepanek in the match that would not end, Nadal was shunted from Wednesday to Thursday and still made his procession towards another final against Federer appear inevitable with an assured 6-3, 6-4, 6-4 victory over Jarkko Nieminen.
Remarkably, when the King of Clay arrived in London from Roland Garros three weeks ago, having retained his French Open title, his debut at Queen's was considered an amusing oddity. As for the serious business of winning Wimbledon, Nadal was not meant to be a contender for two or three years at least.
Grass would not let him slide like he does on clay, and he would not have the time to whip his vicious top spin on to his shots.
Next to names like Roddick, Hewitt and Henman, he had no place in talk about potential grass-court champions.
Oh yes he has. Roddick, Hewitt and Henman have all gone. Nadal is still here, and only No 18 seed Marcos Baghdatis, of Cyprus, stands between him and the man to whom he cannot lose -Federer. Nadal has beaten the world No 1 in all four of their matches in 2006.
Nadal said: 'It's an unbelievable tournament for me to be in the semi-finals of Wimbledon. My goal was to come here and play a good tournament and just to improve on grass.
'When I got to the semi-finals at Roland Garros, I knew I could win. But being in the semi-finals here is new for me, and I can only think about the next match. I have a difficult match. It's stupid for me to think about the final.
'Now I am playing with more confidence, especially on my serve. I am playing more aggressively on my forehand and I am coming into the net a little bit more. It's important to play with security and aggression on this surface, no?' It has to be said that Nadal's route to the semi-finals has hardly been the most taxing.
While Federer has withstood the challenges of Henman, Richard Gasquet, Tomas Berdych and Mario Ancic - all players whose games belong among the elite -Nadal has been fed a diet of grass-court fodder. …