London: With Roger Federer out of the way and any doubts about his fitness spectacularly dispelled, Rafa Nadal faces an unexpected yet fascinating obstacle in the way of a second Wimbledon title in Sunday’s final.
The Spaniard has reached his fourth final -- the first showpiece match since 2002 which will not feature Federer -- where he will face Tomas Berdych, the Czech with the murderous forehand and crunching serve who threatens to shake up the men’s game for many years to come.
Yet in January things looked a lot less rosy for the Mallorcan, who is on the brink of an eighth grand slam title and a cavernous lead in the world rankings after he could not defend his Wimbledon title in 2009.
A knee injury prevented him returning to the All England Club as champion, and in January he limped out of his Australian Open quarter-final against Andy Murray as tendinitis again took its toll.
He had suffered a bleak 11 months in which he did not win a tour title and relinquished the world number one spot to Federer along with his French and Wimbledon crowns.
But an all-conquering 2010 claycourt campaign in Europe and a typically gritty run through the draw here have finally dispelled any lingering doubts about Nadal’s fitness and his rightful place at the top of the game.
“I didn’t win a tournament for 11 months,” he said after easing past Murray in straight sets in Friday’s semi-final. “So that makes it more special, because I worked a lot to be back playing my best tennis.
“That’s a very important personal satisfaction. It is more special when you have tough moments after being at the top.”
The Mallorcan battler has come full circle.
During an incredible spring he claimed the claycourt slam, winning all three Masters events on the red dust before a fifth victory at Roland Garros propelled him back to the top of the world rankings.
Berdych, however, is an intriguing opponent.
When another forehand winner from the Czech sent Federer to quarter-final defeat Wednesday, there was the feel of a changing of the guard, not dissimilar to when the Swiss himself beat seven-times winner Pete Sampras in the 2001 fourth round.
After seeing off the six-times champion, Berdych breezed past third seed Novak Djokovic in straight sets and finally his potential and early promise was being realised.
Great things have been expected of the 1.95m Czech ever since he burst onto the scene as an unknown 18-year-old at the 2004 Olympics where he beat Federer, a loss the Swiss would often describe as the most painful of his career.
Whether it was a lack of focus, guidance or confidence that has delayed the Berdych breakthrough is open to debate, but with his performances here he is finally fulfilling his enormous potential.
A glance at the previous meetings, however, reinforces Nadal’s pre-match billing as the bookies’ favourite.
He is on a six-match and 14-set winning streak against the Czech, while their only previous meeting on grass ended in a straight sets victory for Nadal in the 2007 Wimbledon quarter-final.
For anyone other than the humble Spaniard, this could induce complacency.
“He has played an amazing tournament,” Nadal said.
“Tomas is a very aggressive player with a very good serve and very good flat shots from the baseline.
“It is very difficult to stop him when he’s playing well, and he’s playing really well.”
Berdych reached the semi-finals of the French Open at the start of June, but this is his first grand slam final in 28 attempts.
His raw power and convincing baseline movement mark him out as one of a new breed of big-hitters, like Sweden’s Robin Soderling, who are currently enjoying success in the majors.
His smooth service action evokes comparisons with another Czech master Ivan Lendl, the last of his male compatriots to reach the Wimbledon final in 1987.
Berdych, like Lendl, has icy on-court composure and is respectfully fearless ahead of Sunday’s clash.
“It would be bad to say I fear anybody,” he said after beating an petulant Djokovic.
“I’m playing well, feeling great, still healthy, and I hope I still have some energy left there for the last one.
“Of course I’m looking forward to the next one and definitely not afraid.”