AUSSIE ENDS WITH A LALAPALOOZA – ROUNDHOUSE RAFA CONNECTS

Pete Sampras couldn’t defend himself.  But a friend in need turned out to be a young Spanish guy who responded when Sampras screamed, “Stop thief!”

The prospective thief, named Roger Federer, had his eyes and grasping hands on Sampras’s treasure, the record 14 major singles championships he earned over 13 years of roaming the world with a dominating tennis racket.

Federer came to this sunny town with 13 majors in his satchel, three of them Australian Opens, ready to cut in on Pete’s goodies, and soon to have the record all to himself.

“Not so fast,” said the kid who had never won anything here, but thought somebody ought to protect  the sainted Pete.  And he, called Rafa Nadal, let everybody in town know the reign from Spain was going to fall on the concrete plain in Rod Laver Arena.  Thus he swooped and scooped Federer’s best stuff and whacked it back like an avenging angel so that Sampras could sleep soundly with the record yet under his pillow.

A sinister angel, really, since Rafa deals lefty-handed heat that resounded in two extraordinary conflagrational 5-set triumphs such as never been seen Down Under.  The second, Sunday night, took care of Federer – drove him to real tears — and the title, 7-5, 3-6, 7-6 (7-3), 3-6, 6-2, as 15,000 Federer-ites groaned.  They love him here, and urged him on to thievery.

But a tougher task Friday night was another Spanish lefty, Fernando Verdasco, who had won the Davis Cup for Spain over Argentina, subbing for the injured Nadal in December.  Nadal-Verdasco  That was a semifinal growing to the longest match in the tournament’s annals (5:14), ending at 1:07 Saturday morning, 6-7 (4-7), 6-4, 7-6 (7-2), 6-7 (1-7), 6-4.

So here were Nadal and Federer, Nos. 1-2 on the planet, engaging in their first tiff since that massive Wimbledon final (also 5 sets) where Raffa played the role of burglar, swiping the title Roger had owned for five straight years.

The blue rectangular pavement wasn’t big enough for both of them.  Somebody had to give, and that was Roger – “I played a terrible fifth set…handed it over…could have, should have…I’m shocked and sad…spent 4 hours out there believing I’d win…”

Actually it was 4:23, meaning slugging Roundhouse Rafa had labored 9:37 over the last two bouts, getting little recovery time while Federer had two days off following his soft semi over the nonetheless improved Andy Roddick.

Speaking of records, this part of the country was struck by an all-time heat wave (three days of 115 degrees, Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday), and the good old summertime wasn’t so great for a while.  But the real heat around here was Rafa waving his racket and making his legs go like Hades.

Federer, the Lord of the Swings, turned on a lot of heat, too, his elegant strokes scoring more winners (71-50), and driving Nadal all over town, but relentless Raffa drove him to make more mistakes (64-41).  The Spaniard, who appeared weary in the early going, moving uncertainly on the forehand side, found second, third, fourth and fifth winds.

”I was a little tired, dizzy at the end, but fighting all the time,” he said.  ”I was completely worried, lost the power sometimes, but…” he laughed.  ”It was very special, the first [major] on a hard court.”  Though never a factor at the U.S. Open, he joins Jimmy Connors, Mats Wilander and Andre Agassi in a select quartet, the only majors champs on grass, clay and hard courts.

Entering the fifth set, Federer seemed the stronger, but dropped serve to 1-3 from 30-0, double faulting and making three errors.  Encouraged, Nadal pepped up his own serve that cost him only two points the rest of the way.  The burly Rafa kept scrambling, making Federer hit too many shots, the last one, his killer forehand, sailing over the baseline after he rescued two match points.

“I am happy but cannot celebrate,” Rafa said, “because Roger cried and felt so bad.  He is still the best player I know of.”

The gracious champ follows Federer’s example and, I believe, will not fall to hubris.  ”When you win an important match, but you have to know before the match who you are, and after the match you have to know who you are, too.  You are the same, no?”

Federer, who will see those churning feet and the ominously spinning shotmaking blizzards in his nightmares, has this problem: Raffa has burrowed into his head like a malevolent genie.  Winner of their last five clashes, Rafa leads in the rivalry 13-6 (6-2 in majors), and will be favored to stomp everybody into Parisian clay and win the French for the fifth time in a row.  That would make him a candidate for the first Grand Slam (male version) since Aussie Rod Laver 40 years ago.

And there was kindred spirit Laver, left-handing the trophy to Nadal, a prize named for Norman Brookes, an Aussie southpaw who was the initial foreigner to win Wimbledon in 1907.  It was lefties night.

“My uncle Toni [his coach] tells me Laver was the greatest of all time,” Rafa said, “but I never saw him until today.  For me Roger is the greatest.”

However Nadal slapped Federer’s hand as Roger was reaching into Pete Sampras’s cookie jar.  Maybe Pete should worry more about Nadal.  He has 6 majors and is but a lad of 22 with larceny on his own  mind.

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