With tennis greats Sampras, Rosewall. Laver and Edberg in attendance, Rafael Nadal called upon his very best to overcome another legend, Roger Federer, 7-6 6-3 6-3.
Despite not beating Nadal in a major since 2007, this encounter offered more promise for Federer given his sterling play in the preceding rounds. Other considerations threatened to tip the balance more in his favour as well: Rafa’s blister, whether the roof would stay open on Rod Laver Arena, and if Nadal could regain the speed on his serve that vanished against Dimitrov.
Under normal circumstances, Nadal would be considered the heavy favourite, yet all these considerations had many (myself included) thinking that Federer stood a very good chance of reversing the trend between the two. Yet, we witnessed a straight sets win that spoke more to Nadal’s ability to zone in at such a high level, for such a prolonged time. Federer didn’t play poorly by any metric, it’s just now more apparent than ever that Rafa is able to draw on reserves that even Roger can’t.
Historically, the most important part of the Nadal-Federer rivalry has been Rafa’s ability to unsettle Roger and get inside his head. Pundits may talk about strategy and Rafa exploiting Federer’s backhand endlessly, but this match showed once more that it’s the intangibles between the two that separate them most. When Roger complained to the chair about Rafa’s grunting on the 2-1 changeover in the 2nd set, we saw actual evidence of Rafa’s mental stranglehold.
I won’t delve into match statistics - for a detailed account of how it all unfolded, visit Beyond The Baseline’s live analysis here
This match held added significance as both men figured to be the presumptive favourite against Wawrinka in the final. As for the G.O.A.T debate, Federer supporters are wont to point to the overall tally of Slam wins as indicative of his superiority. Accordingly, this match carried real weight with the likelihood of each being able to notch another feather in the cap.
However, how can we, in good conscience, ignore the actual play between the two on court? Not only does Nadal beat Federer while elevating his own game, but he also forces Roger into a lower level of play. The Federer that we see when they play is not the same Federer that takes the court against everybody else. This is pretty damning to Roger’s candidacy. Moreover - as we saw in the third set - Nadal broke Federer’s spirit. It’s a jarring picture to see someone of Federer’s stature seemingly overcome by an opponent.
Though Federer fans will be disappointed by tonight’s result, all is certainly not lost. Federer’s tennis at this Australian Open is a far cry from what we’ve seen over the past 12 months. That he lost to Nadal is not something that should dampen his prospects for 2014. Instead, his superb play against Tsonga and Murray is what he should hang his hat on. There are many positive from which Federer should draw to propel him on to better results.
Looking forward to the final:
Nadal looks to become the first player in the Open Era to win a career Grand Slam twice. He’s undefeated against Wawrinka (12-0), but most of those matches weren’t played against the Stanimal we’ve seen emerge over the last 12 months. It would be foolhardy to brush Wawrinka aside as not standing a chance in the final; he unseated Djokovic and backed that win up with a solid semifinal win against Berdych. Rafa will enter the overwhelming favourite - especially after his display tonight. However, we should still have more scintillating tennis in store, a fitting end to a tournament that’s already provided so many thrills.