Rafael Nadal begins bid for 3rd Wimbledon title

Published 9:10 am Monday, June 25, 2012

WIMBLEDON, England — His practice session completed on the eve of Wimbledon, Rafael Nadal departed the All England Club on foot, leading a small entourage out the gate and up a hill, momentum on his side.

He won a record seventh French Open title two weeks ago. He has three consecutive victories over top-ranked Novak Djokovic, the most recent coming in the final at Roland Garros. He has won four tournaments this year, all since mid-April.

But Nadal’s not about to proclaim himself the favorite to win Wimbledon for a third time.

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“I’m very happy the way things went the last couple of months,” he said. “But thinking about winning another title here in Wimbledon is arrogant and crazy. That’s something I cannot think about, no?”

Nadal’s not one to overlook an opponent, which in this case means No. 80-ranked Thomaz Bellucci of Brazil in the first round Tuesday. But fans have the luxury of projecting Nadal into the final, and wondering whether he’ll then meet Djokovic or six-time champion Roger Federer.

Either matchup would renew a rivalry. Nadal is 18-10 against Federer, and they’ve played in a record eight major finals, with Nadal winning six.

“Their rivalry is one of the most respected rivalries in the history of our sport, if not the biggest rivalry,” Djokovic said. “Every time you see a Federer-Nadal match, everybody is excited. Even I’m excited to see it, because it’s something that goes on for many years.”

Lately, however, those showdowns have been eclipsed by Nadal vs. Djokovic. The Spaniard is 19-14 against the Serb, and they’ve met in a record four consecutive major finals, with Djokovic winning three of those. Nadal or Djokovic has won the past nine major titles.

Nadal said he enjoys both rivalries but figures fans regard them differently, because he dethroned Federer atop the rankings in 2008, then was overtaken a year ago by Djokovic after losing to the Serb in the Wimbledon final.

“When I arrived here on tour, especially when I started to play well, Roger always was there,” Nadal said. “With Novak it’s little bit the other way. I was there and then he came. So is difficult for me to analyze which rivalry is more important, less important, more attractive, less attractive for everybody.

“The only thing I can say is that all the classic matches are because you played a lot of matches in very important circumstances between each other, no? That happens a lot of times with Roger, a lot of Grand Slam finals, a lot of Masters 1000s, competing for very important tournaments in our careers.

“But with Novak we start to have all of this, too. It’s great. I feel very lucky to be part of these two rivalries.”

Djokovic and Federer, both on the opposite side of the draw from Nadal, were scheduled to play opening matches Monday. Djokovic was to face former No. 1 Juan Carlos Ferrero, while Federer was to play Albert Ramos.

Federer’s match was on Court 1 — the first time since 2003 that he wasn’t assigned to Centre Court for the opening round. That’s one sign of slippage for the 16-time Grand Slam champion, but his four tournament championships this year suggest he remains a title threat, especially on grass.

Nadal was mislabeled a clay-court specialist by some early in his career, and his first four major titles came at the French Open. But he ended Federer’s streak of five consecutive Wimbledon titles when they met in the 2008 final, and won the tournament again in 2010.

Nadal has reached the final each of the past five times he entered Wimbledon, finishing runner-up once to Djokovic and twice to Federer.

“I always loved this place. I always loved this surface,” Nadal said.

He completed a career Grand Slam by winning the Australian Open in 2009 and the U.S. Open in 2010. He has 11 major titles at age 26, and only three men have won more — Federer (16), Pete Sampras (14) and Roy Emerson (12).

Nadal said plenty of dangerous players lurk in the draw, and he mentioned David Ferrer, Tomas Berdych, Jo-Wilfried Tsonga and Milos Raonic.  But most likely the final will offer a familiar matchup: Nadal against Djokovic, or Nadal against Federer.

Which rivalry carries more historical heft? Nadal declined to guess.

“We’ll see,” he said, “at the end of our careers.”