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Federer has eye on history

He looks to jump last major hurdle

PARIS -- Roger Federer can accomplish a lot by beating Rafael Nadal today, perhaps the least of which is winning the French Open.

Also on the line for Federer: a career Grand Slam, a non-calendar Grand Slam, and a shot at the first true Grand Slam in nearly four decades.

"He has more pressure at the moment than me, because what is at stake for him is probably more difficult than just winning a final," said Nadal, the two-time defending champion who's never lost a match at Roland Garros. "What he's aiming at is winning a Grand Slam. As for me, I just want to win the final of a Grand Slam."

And then there was this for the top-ranked Federer to consider as he put his head on his pillow last night: If he fails to figure out Nadal in this final, how many more chances will there be to add a French Open title to his collection?

Federer is 25, which is hardly to be considered old no matter his walk of life. But if he were to scan the list of past French Open men's singles champions, Federer would come across some daunting data.

Over the past 33 years, there have been only six champions who were 26 or older.

On the eve of the tournament, Federer acknowledged what a grind it can be to attempt to win seven best-of-five-set matches on the red clay of Roland Garros.

"I've been working a long time for the French Open goal," he said two weeks ago, "trying to get ready, being in the best physical shape, and, you know, mentally ready."

That's part of what makes Justine Henin's success in Paris so impressive. She won her third consecutive French Open -- and fourth in five years -- by beating Ana Ivanovic, 6-1, 6-2, in the women's final yesterday.

Today, Federer will be playing in his eighth consecutive Grand Slam final, breaking a record set in the 1930s by Jack Crawford of Australia.

Federer has won 27 consecutive Grand Slam matches for the second time. His last loss at a major? To Nadal in last year's French Open final. That ended another 27-match Grand Slam winning streak for Federer, one that began after a semifinal loss to Nadal at the 2005 French Open.

As in 2006, Federer is on the verge of his fourth Grand Slam title in a row, something that hasn't been done since Rod Laver won all four majors in 1969.

"It was the same last year, and I could feel such pressure. I really wanted to win that match last year against Nadal, because I knew what it meant for my career, for myself. And it's just the same thing one year later," Federer said. "But I have more experience now. I'm more mature."

But now he faces the second-ranked Nadal, who has won seven of their 11 matches, including five of six on clay.

The complexion of the rivalry changed a bit last month at the Hamburg Masters, where Federer dropped a total of two games over the final two sets to thump Nadal and end his record 81-match winning streak on the surface.

"You don't want to think that if I play the way I played in Hamburg, I'm going to win again," said Federer. "One, because I can't play exactly the same way; and second, because I guess he's not going to make exactly the same mistakes again.

"But it's true -- it gives me confidence. I know that if I play well, I can dominate the match."

During this tournament, though, Nadal managed to slip in something of an explanation for that aberration on his favorite surface: He pointed out that he was "a bit tired in Hamburg."

If Federer wins, he certainly would be a heavy favorite to complete the true Grand Slam, given that he has won Wimbledon the past four years and the US Open the past three. That's part of a run in which he's won 10 of the past 15 majors.

"I don't want to think about it too much -- winning the four titles in a row. I want to be focused on this very specific match," Federer said. "But I want to do my best, keep focused on this match, and win Roland Garros.

"And that would open the door to the Grand Slam in one year."