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Rafa, Serena pull away from the rest at Wimbledon

WIMBLEDON, England (AP) — It was the middle Sunday at Wimbledon, the tournament's traditional day off, and the best players in men's tennis were scattered around the All England Club's practice courts.

Rafael Nadal was there, going through a relatively light training session. To his right stood Roger Federer, hitting on the next court over. To Nadal's left was Andy Roddick, also on an adjacent court. Andy Murray was out there, too, along with Novak Djokovic and Robin Soderling.

All were in close quarters that afternoon.

A week later, it's clear that the gap between 2010 Wimbledon champion Nadal and the rest — including Federer — is quite pronounced.

"His backhand's good. His serve's good. His forehand's good. His movement is good. He does everything really, really well," Murray said after being picked apart by Nadal in a straight-set semifinal.

And Murray went on to add this: "He's one of the greatest players ever."

For years, Federer was No. 1, Nadal was No. 2, and no one else was even close. They combined to win 17 of 18 Grand Slam titles in one stretch. But it appears to be a fading rivalry, because their last match against each other at a major tournament was 1½ years ago.

Indeed, right now, Nadal is alone at the top, much the way the woman who is No. 1 and won Wimbledon, Serena Williams, has distanced herself from the pack — in the rankings and on the court.

Williams won all 14 sets she played at the All England Club this year and set a tournament record with 89 aces. She's won five of the last eight Grand Slam titles. The only other woman who's even reached two major finals in that span is Dinara Safina. She lost both, then made a first-round exit at the French Open in May and withdrew from Wimbledon with a back injury.

Williams' older sister Venus is now 30, hasn't won a Grand Slam tournament in two years, hasn't even made it past the quarterfinals at the last four majors and dropped to No. 4 in Monday's rankings.

"It's not just about how many Slams you win or how many tournaments you win — it's just your game overall. And (Serena's) definitely got all the goods," 18-time major champion Martina Navratilova said. "It would have been fun to play her, but at the same time, I'm glad that I didn't have to."

Nadal, meanwhile, is 31-1 with five titles since mid-April. Not only has he regained the top ranking, but as of Monday, Federer slipped to No. 3 for the first time since November 2003.

Plus, after reaching a record 23 consecutive Grand Slam semifinals, 16-time major champion Federer has lost in the quarterfinals at two majors in a row.

Nadal now stands halfway to Federer's record total. By managing the tricky transition from clay to grass and following up his fifth championship at the French Open with his second at Wimbledon, Nadal is up to eight major trophies, including the 2009 Australian Open.

Bjorn Borg was the French Open and Wimbledon champion in 1978, 1979 and 1980, but nobody else won both in the same season for the next 27 years. Now it's been done three times in a row: by Nadal in 2008, Federer in 2009, and Nadal again.

"If you want to play well, (you're) going to find a way," Nadal said. "So if you really want to play well in one surface, and you are a good player, I think in the end, (you're) going to find a way."

Simple as that, huh?

After easily beating Tomas Berdych 6-3, 7-5, 6-4 in Sunday's Wimbledon final, Nadal was asked about chasing Federer's Grand Slam record.

"Eight more? That's too complicated ... too hard," Nadal said. "I never imagined I'd have eight Grand Slam titles today, at 24 years old."

That's right: Nadal is only 24, and he already owns the same number of major championships as Andre Agassi, Jimmy Connors and Ivan Lendl did when they retired — and one more than John McEnroe.

What must be daunting for Nadal's contemporaries is that he keeps getting better and better.

His serve once was considered a liability. Not any more. Against Berdych, Nadal saved all four break points he faced. Against Soderling in the Roland Garros final a month ago, Nadal went 8 for 8 when he was a point from losing serve.

So what's the secret? After all, Nadal's average speed on first serves Sunday was 115 mph, 10 mph slower than Berdych.

"My percentage is high. That's important, especially on this kind of surface, on grass," Nadal said Sunday night in an interview while being driven away from the All England Club. "And then, I think, my first shot after the serve is a good one, normally — that first forehand is a good one, and that's a big advantage."

Ah, yes, that forehand. Nadal whips it fiercely, lathering it with spin. That helped him accumulate a 14-4 edge in baseline winners Sunday.

It is hit, of course, with his left hand. Nadal, though, is naturally a righty, which is the hand he used to sign autographs for fans after the final. When he first began playing tennis, he would hit two-handed shots off both sides — forehands and backhands — but at about 9 or 10, he figured it was time to choose.

Seems like he picked well.

Now Nadal will take a couple of weeks off to rest, relax, get treatment for his right knee, and get ready for the next challenge: the U.S. Open, which begins Aug. 30. That's the only major title missing from his resume.

Win that, and he'll join Federer, Agassi and the four other men who own career Grand Slams.

Williams is one of nine women who've done that, and she'll be favored to keep adding to her major total in New York. She already owns 13 Grand Slam trophies, six more than any other active woman.

"She's just head and shoulders above everybody else," Navratilova said, "and those are pretty broad shoulders."

The same could be said about Nadal.

___

Howard Fendrich covers tennis for The Associated Press. Write to him at hfendrich(at)ap.org

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