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Wimbledon final shows Nadal getting closer in the chase for Federer

| Monday, July 9, 2007, 12:00 p.m.

WIMBLEDON, England — Rafael Nadal is getting closer.

A year after losing the Wimbledon final to Roger Federer in four sets, the second-seeded Spaniard pushed Federer to the full five Sunday before falling 7-6 (7), 4-6, 7-6 (3), 2-6, 6-2.

"He's playing phenomenal tennis," Federer said. "He's definitely improved yet again.

"I think last year he came out, nothing to lose, kind of hit hard but didn't know why. This year around, he's changed his game a little bit. Plays maybe a bit more aggressive, knows the game of grass much better."

Nadal had his chances this time at the All England Club, but he still couldn't stop Federer from matching Bjorn Borg's five straight Wimbledon titles.

"Playing against one of the best in history on this surface, having two chances for a win, I'm playing at a similar level," Nadal said. "I can say nothing bad about my tournament.

"Today was a little bit disappointing because I had good chances. Tomorrow, I will be happy about my tournament and about my game."

Nadal, who won the clay-court French Open three times, then held break points at 1-1 and 2-2 in the final set. Federer saved two in each game, then broke Nadal with a forehand winner to go ahead 4-2.

"I didn't feel I played worse than him from the baseline," Nadal said. "Maybe if we have to find any difference, maybe the difference is the serve.

"He served better than me and that's important on every surface, but on this surface more."

But Nadal's performance at Wimbledon showed he is getting better on grass — a remarkable achievement considering he's played so little on Federer's favorite surface.

Even after a grueling schedule that forced him to play on each of the last seven days because of rain, Nadal attacked Federer throughout. He stood near or even inside the baseline to receive serves, and his coach said little separated the two.

"A little bit of luck," said Toni Nadal, who is also Rafael's uncle. "Rafael had two 15-40s and I think if Rafael had won one of these, maybe now Rafael would be the champion."

Unlike most players, the 21-year-old Nadal knows what it is like to beat Federer regularly. Nadal leads Federer 8-5 overall and beat the top-ranked Swiss player in the final at Roland Garros the past two years.

"I win my share. He wins his," Federer said. "We've been at the top for over 100 weeks together. It is building up to one of maybe the great rivalries."

Toni Nadal thinks there is still more to come from his nephew, and Nadal is concentrating on proving him right.

"A comparison with Roger right now is not possible yet because he has 11 Grand Slams, me three," Nadal said. "But, well, I am young. I am improving every season and try to continue improving every day."

The champion agreed.

"He deserves a title here," Federer said.

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