Wednesday, July 2, 2008 | 4:12 p.m.
LONDON – All the talk here today was about characters. Personalities are important to Wimbledon fans, whether they're here or watching the blanket coverage on the BBC.
The crowds had queued all night in their tents despite the forecast of rain, to get one of the 500 tickets – which go on sale for the Centre Court every day – for a special match. The only British hope, Andy Murrary, was facing one of the crowd “favourites” – Rafael Nadal. The fans had seen a rejuvenated Andy Murray a couple of days ago and the love-hate relationship with the fiery 21-year-old Scot was gradually thawing. But how could the Centre Court crowd root against Nadal?
To find a crowd favorite like Nadal, you’d have to think back to 1992, when a guy with long hair and earrings showed up from Las Vegas with zero grass court practice and disrespect for Wimbledon traditions. Andre Agassi produced a miracle and beat Goran Ivanisevic in a thrilling final and the love affair started then. Agassi became besotted with the Championships and its traditions, just as the fans became besotted with him.
Other players have come and gone and earned the affection of the crowds. But like Agassi, Nadal has that X factor that draws in the younger fans. He has the biggest biceps in the sport, the outfit, the intensity he brings to the game, the grittiness on court – and the politeness off the court. Add to that the scintillating five set final that he played last year, when he almost beat Roger Federer, which firmly cemented him as a Wimbledon favorite.
Nadal, the world’s No. 2 from Spain has more than improved his grass-court credentials over the last couple of years. He beat Murray at Hamburg, Madrid and the Australian Open.
It was clear from the second game which way it would go. Nadal was in one of those frames where he had an answer to everything. He crushed Murray's hopes with a sensational display of serving and spin. Nadal did not face a single break point and lost just 10 points on his serve.
"He played so much better than me,” Murray said. “His forehand was ridiculous. He was hitting the ball so close to the line."
First match on a rain-delayed Centre Court this afternoon involved the defending champion and a blast from the past – 2002. In the first round that year, Federer fell to a certain Mario Ancic from Croatia. That was the last time that Federer lost at Wimbledon.
In order that the crowds and media didn't get too excited, Ancic reminded us that Federer has beaten him five times since, including at the Wimbledon quarters in 2006. Well, he was right. Federer treated him as stepping stone to book a spot for later in the week. He won 6-1 7-5 6-4 to reach the semifinals without dropping a set.
"I'm playing great, serving excellent," said Federer, who landed 76 percent of his first serves and faced no break points. "I know how to win two more. I've done it before so I'm looking forward to the challenge."
Marat Safin was up against Feliciano Lopez of Spain. Lopez had won their previous encounter here in straight sets in 2005. This was only the second time that Safin had reached the quarters in nine appearances. Safin produced the goods to reach the Wimbledon semis for the first time with a 3-6 7-5 7-6 (7-1) 6-3 win. Lopez made a good start winning the first set, but after the rain break the tide turned as Marat ground his Spanish opponent into submission.
Safin now faces Federer. "No matter what I do against Roger, it's been a great two weeks," Safin said.
The unfinished quarterfinal between Rainer Schluetter and Arnaud Clement, level at one-set-all, resumes tomorrow.
James Borg, a freelance journalist, has covered the All-England Lawn Tennis Championships for 31 years. He spent a few months in Las Vegas and did work for Caesars Palace. He lives in London