Here we are, on the cusp of the 33rd instalment of a rivalry that has given the tennis world some of its greatest thrills. It comes at an unexpected time, mostly because of Roger Federer’s uncertain play over the last year. Consider too the arduous draw he encountered at the start of the tournament, and it’s a pleasant surprise that he’s arrived at this point in such good shape.
Rafael Nadal faced a similarly daunting task when the draws were revealed. He certainly benefited from Juan Martin del Potro’s shock loss in the second round. Even so, he’s found the going very tough, battling through a myriad of factors to even make it this far.
The prospect of another meaningful Federer-Nadal showdown at a Grand Slam has riled each player’s rabid fanbase. A Nadal-Djokovic final seemed so inevitable; they’ve sustained such high levels over the past year that everyone else appeared to be mere footnotes on their path to another Slam final. Yet, we’ve been treated to this delicious change of narrative.
The unexpected happened at this Australian Open. The Argentine dark-horse fell meekly by the wayside. Stanislas Wawrinka exorcised the demons of 2013 and overcame his Serbian nemesis. Roger Federer recaptured the form and wizardry of yesteryear, powering through the draw with remarkable ease. Meanwhile, Nadal found himself having to fight tooth and nail against inspired opponents, and the untimely emergence of a much talked about blister in the middle of his left hand.
Federer has played awesome tennis for the majority of this tournament. It has prompted many to wonder if he’s well and truly back. The excitement is not without merit. He’s turned back perennial bugaboos Jo-Wilfried Tsonga and Andy Murray with remarkable aplomb. It’s a fantastic result, but the real test will be if he is able to conquer Nadal too. Roger may be in good physical shape, but Rafa will provide a stern examination of where he’s at mentally. No player in Federer’s storied career has been able to get inside his head the way Nadal has.
Still, there are a number of mitigating factors that could impede the scintillating tennis we’re all hoping for. Nadal has been unusually candid in his post-match interviews and press conferences regarding the state of his game, particularly in relation to the nasty blister he’s been coping with. After his quarterfinal win against Dimitrov, he quipped about how much he suffered during the match, presumably from the limitations of having to play with the injury. He noted being unable to generate pace on his serve and gave the impression that it’s a significant hindrance - no surprise for anyone who’s seen it.
How much of an impact will the blister have on his play against Federer? If Roger plays at the same level as he’s shown in the past two rounds, it will be a tough ask for a depleted Nadal. But, how much of Nadal’s struggles is actually due to the blister? It didn’t seem to bother him too much against Monfils in the third round; he played a stunning first set and was able to hit through the ball with much more force than he’s shown in subsequent rounds. Maybe it has more to do with playing in daytime conditions than anything else? If that’s the case, Nadal will benefit from playing at night in the next two rounds.
Without question, Federer has elevated his game to a level we haven’t seen for quite some time. However, is it enough to get him over the finish line and win another Slam? In such a competitive tennis landscape, Federer needed the stars to align and give him an added bit of luck. Tsonga didn’t bring his best to their fourth round encounter (though some might argue that had more to do with Roger’s play), and then he faced Murray on the comeback trail from months of inactivity due to back surgery. It’s hard to gauge how much those results were influenced by Federer’s performance, rather than being aided by external circumstances. Is the blister another bit of good luck; something that can bolster his surging confidence?
The bottomline is that this match won’t change the overall nature of their legendary rivalry. Nadal is so far in front in terms of wins and losses that a Federer win won’t make a meaningful dent in the raw numbers. However, given that Novak Djokovic is no longer lurking on the other half of the draw as overwhelming favourite in the final - both men have been gifted an opportunity to chalk up another major win. This adds context and an added layer of pressure when they take the court tomorrow night.
It is the overall tally of major wins that is the main point of contention when considering both men’s place in history. A five-win gap (18-13) enhances Federer’s standing, especially if he is able to go through Rafa on the way to the Aussie crown. Don’t forget too that Nadal is aiming to become the first man in the Open Era to win two career Grand Slams. With each major, much like Serena Williams, I get the impression that Nadal is keenly aware of his place in history. It might explain why he seems so determined to “suffer” through the pain and push his body to extremes in order to get the job done.
Of course, all this supposes that should either win the semifinal, he’ll go on to win the tournament. Stan Wawrinka, in particular, might take exception to all this speculation. More than anything, my hope is that this match will breathe new life into one of the greatest rivalries we’ve ever witnessed. It’s become somewhat of an afterthought in recent years as Rafa’s scored a large number of wins while Roger suffered through a period of decline. Should this tournament give birth to a renewed Federer, perhaps that will result in more chapters to the Federer-Nadal story.
Forget all the prognostication - and especially after all the superb tennis we’ve seen so far this tournament - how great is it that we’re treated to these two on the big stage one more time?