Federer, first-timers seek final place
LONDON, July 7 (Reuters) A 34-year-old Swede with a doubles habit stands between Roger Federer and a fourth consecutive Wimbledon final.
The Swiss will start hot favourite against doubles specialist Jonas Bjorkman to set up a final against either Cypriot Marcos Baghdatis or his 2006 nemesis Rafael Nadal, who has beaten him in four finals this year.
The two semi-finals feature four starkly contrasting characters.
World number one Federer is the only one of the four to have played in a Wimbledon semi-final previously and he prowls the grass with the calm assurance of man who knows he is better than the rest.
Bjorkman is an ageing, likeable jack of all trades enjoying one last trip into the limelight.
Baghdatis is a crowd-pleasing bundle of grins and grimaces while Nadal's youthful exuberance is expressed in rippling muscle and dark-eyed attitude.
While Federer will show Bjorkman, who reached the US Open semi-finals in 1997, plenty of respect, the Swiss really has another Swede on his mind.
GOOD RETURNS He is attempting to join Bjorn Borg and American Pete Sampras as the only men to win four consecutive Wimbledon titles since men's tennis turned professional in 1968.
Borg was also the last man to win Wimbledon without dropping a set, in 1976. Few would bet on Bjorkman, the world number 59, becoming the first player at this year's tournament to take a set off Federer despite his excellent returning ability.
''The next round sort of looks like it's opened up a bit,'' said Federer, who has won 46 consecutive matches on grass.
''I'm obviously a big favourite but it can be very tricky.
''It's Wimbledon. It's the semi-finals. You don't want to underestimate anybody.'' Bjorkman practised with Federer when the Swiss was a teenager and lost to him in the Wimbledon third round in 2001.
''Obviously, it's going to be tough,'' the Swede said. ''But it's a dream come true to have opportunity to play Wimbledon semi-final against the best player in the world right now and who is probably going to be the best player ever.
''He's just the perfect number one both on the court and off the court.'' Federer would probably love to have the chance to avenge his four defeats this year by Nadal on his favourite surface but the Spaniard will need all his newfound confidence on grass to quell Baghdatis.
The 21-year-old Cypriot appears to have rediscovered the belief that carried him to the Australian Open final in January and turned him into a national hero.
NADAL PROGRESS An intriguing baseline battle lies in store, with 20-year-old Nadal's power pitted against Baghdatis's superior touch.
''Australia was great...but it was also the first time,'' said Baghdatis. ''Now I have some more experience. I am more calm maybe on the court.'' He lost to Federer in Melbourne but, having dispatched 2002 Wimbledon champion Lleyton Hewitt in the quarter-finals, retains the belief that he could yet claim his first grand slam title.
''Why not? I mean, I'm in the semis of a grand slam,'' he said. ''Everybody can beat everybody, that's what I think.'' Nadal, who beat Baghdatis 7-5 6-0 at Indian Wells on hardcourt this year in their only previous meeting, has transformed himself into a genuine grasscourt threat over the course of the tournament and feels he has nothing to lose.
''I have a very difficult match tomorrow,'' the double French Open champion said. ''It would be stupid to think about the final.
''It's an unbelievable tournament for me, to be in semi-finals of Wimbledon. I'm going to try my best, it's very important for me.'' Reuters PM RN0952