Rafael Nadal sat on the dirty carpet of his rented apartment, three blocks away from Wimbledon's Centre Court, 21 hours before he was scheduled for the biggest match of his life against grass court wizard Roger Federer.
Federer, the top-seeded player and three-time defending champion, hasn't lost a set here in two weeks. He has won 47 consecutive grass court matches. The 24-year-old from Switzerland is picked by nearly everyone, in the locker room here, by the experts everywhere else, to win a fourth consecutive title and his eighth major overall.
Yet Nadal, a 20-year-old Spaniard, spent Saturday afternoon amiably chatting with different groups of reporters. First came his fellow Spaniards. Then came the North Americans. Spanish and English, forehand and backhand, Nadal is talented on both sides of the language court and tennis court.
This has been a challenging month for Nadal. He won his second straight French Open title by beating Federer in the championships. A day after that match, Nadal said, he was in London, practicing on grass. "I arrive in London at 5 p.m.," he said. "I'm on the court at 6. That's good, no?"
Nadal, though, was so bothered by a sore shoulder he pulled out of a warm-up tournament and in his second-round Wimbledon match was two points from defeat before recovering to beat unheralded American qualifier Robert Kendrick, 6-7 (4), 3-6, 7-6 (2), 7-5, 6-4.
But Nadal has made it. "Sooner than I think," he said. He's the second Spanish Wimbledon finalist since Manuel Santana won the title in 1966, the fourth-youngest in history.
He wore a blue shirt and white shorts on Saturday. On a coffee table was his spare change, his wallet and two tennis shoes. Written in ink on the back of the left it said "Vamos." On the right, "Rafa." Go Rafa.
On the wall behind Nadal was a poster of about 50 pills. It was titled "Pharmaceuticals," and Nadal seemed oblivious to its presence. The apartment is a rental, after all. How were the owners to know that Nadal's reputation would be assaulted as it was last Monday, when his name was mentioned in conjunction with a Madrid doping investigation that has tarnished the reputations of prominent cyclists Ivan Basso and Jan Ullrich.
Nadal vigorously denied the story twice, and on Saturday instead talked about how he likes to cook -- simple things such as pasta and fish -- and about how he is never still. "I am a little bit hyperactive," he said.
He remembers watching Pete Sampras win Wimbledon on television as a child with his uncle, Toni, who is now his coach. "I say, 'I'm going to play like Pete,' " Nadal said.
It was an impertinent wish for a youngster learning the game on slow, red clay. Nadal doesn't have Sampras' big, clever serve or elegant volleys. He doesn't have Sampras' on-court stone face either.
But Nadal has Sampras' confidence. "I was never afraid of grass," Nadal said. "I respect it."
Nadal's sport is in need of personality and intrigue, and the burgeoning rivalry between top-ranked Federer and second-ranked Nadal is the best tennis can offer.
"It's nice for the fans," Nadal said. "You can think, 'This time Roger's going to win. This time Rafa's going to win.' That's good for tennis."
Mostly it has been Nadal winning, six of the seven times the two have played. All four times this year. Federer is 55-0 against everyone but Nadal in 2006.
"I don't have many bad records against players," Federer said. "This is one. We've been playing for the No. 1 spot for the last year. It's great we play back-to-back in Grand Slam finals. I think it's very exciting for the sport."
Nadal said he was not nervous about his big moment. "Pressure is on him, no?" Nadal said, and smiled while remembering how he beat Federer in the first match they played two years ago in Miami.
"It was 6-3, 6-3," he said. "I was like No. 50 to his No. 1. Maybe I played an unbelievable match. I was very good, I remember."
Federer hasn't lost on Centre Court in four years and needed only 77 minutes to win his semifinal match against Jonas Bjorkman. It has taken Nadal 6:33 longer and 48 more games to make it this far.
But Bjorkman wondered Friday if Nadal's four consecutive wins this year over Federer might make a difference.
"Nadal has managed to get into the head of Roger a little bit," Bjorkman said. "That should help him."
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Head to head
Roger Federer (1) vs. Rafael Nadal (2)
Nadal leads in victories, 6-1, with his only loss coming in the 2005 Miami tournament:
*--* Year Tournament Surface Round Score 2004 Miami hard-outdoor Round of 32 6-3, 6-3 2005 Miami hard-outdoor Final 2-6, 6-7 (4), 7-6 (5), 6-3, 6-1 2005 French clay-outdoor Semifinal 6-3, 4-6, 6-4, 6-3 2006 Dubai hard-outdoor Final 2-6, 6-4, 6-4 2006 Monte Carlo clay-outdoor Final 6-2, 6-7 (2), 6-3, 7-6 (5) 2006 Rome clay-outdoor Final 6-7 (0), 7-6 (5), 6-4, 2-6, 7-6 (5) 2006 French clay-outdoor Final 1-6, 6-1, 6-4, 7-6 (4)