Rafael Nadal and Roger Federer renew their era-defining rivalry in earnest in Melbourne on Friday when there will not only be a place in the final of the year’s first Grand Slam at stake, but potentially the legacy of both men.
The two have met 32 times previously, yet this will be their first clash in a major since at the same stage of the Australian Open two years ago. That is not the only factor making it comfortably the most anticipated match between these two legends of the sport since.
Federer won only one set in four matches between the pair last year, as Nadal took his head-to-head advantage to a resounding 22-10 in his favor. It may have still caught the imagination, but the encounters between the two had ceased to be a genuine rivalry. And just two weeks ago few would have given Federer a chance of reversing that trend in Melbourne.
Yet, after being hampered by a back injury through 2013 and still in the formative stages of adapting to a larger racket head, the Swiss great now looks physically fitter than he has in a long time and us utilizing his new equipment to generate smoother power. Federer rolled back the years in his dismantling of Jo-Wilfried Tsonga and Andy Murray in the last two rounds for the loss of just one set, employing the all-court game that initially became his hallmark.
Whether the 32-year-old can be so successful coming forward to the net against the man who has proved his toughest foe may prove to be a different matter entirely. Yet, as well as renewed fitness and a new racket, Federer also has a new adviser in his boyhood idol Stefan Edberg and he suggested the two had made particular plans in pre-season for countering just this test.
“The head to head record is in his favor,” he said after beating Murray in four sets on Wednesday. “I'm looking forward to speaking to Stefan, because when we spoke together, you know, when he came to Dubai and we spoke about the game, we clearly spoke about playing Rafa, as well. He thought he had some good ideas, so I'm looking forward to what he has to say.”
Nadal knows all about proving doubters wrong having enjoyed success even beyond his own wildest expectations after returning to the tour following a seven-month absence due to a knee injury last year. It is the Spaniard who has made tougher work of his route through to the semifinals, though, particularly in a hard-fought four-set win over the man dubbed “Baby Fed” Grigor Dimitrov in the quarterfinals.
Nadal was hampered in that clash by tape over a blister on his left hand that prevented him from serving with his normal power and in turn psychologically impacted the rest of his game. And the Spaniard accepts the situation will have to improve if he is to get the better of the real Federer on Friday.
“I feel that with the tape I can lose the racquet when I’m serving,” he explained. “That's my feeling: that the racquet can go. That's a terrible feeling for a serve, because then when you have this feeling you are not able to accelerate at the right moment. You lose a little bit the coordination. Yeah, that's a big deal. I served slower. I served bad.
“I felt that the biggest problem was the serve because, you know, serve like this gives me a problem for the other things. When you lose the confidence with one shot, one important shot, then you are not able to play with calmness on the rest of the shots.
“So I’m going to try to improve that Friday. If not, I’m not going to have the chance to be in the final.”
Whoever comes out on top in the Rod Laver Arena will be a significant favorite to take the title, with first-time Grand Slam finalist Stanislas Wawrinka awaiting in the final. It presents a huge opportunity then for either Nadal to earn his 14th Grand Slam title and move second on the all-time list alongside Pete Sampras, while also edging closer to Federer’s mark of 18. For Federer it is a chance, in statistical and perception terms, to inch further ahead in the discussion of the greatest of all time.
If at age 32 Federer can get his first win over Nadal, now theoretically in his prime, for the first time in almost seven years at a major, it would be a powerful statement indeed.
Where to watch: The semifinal of the Australian Open between Rafael Nadal and Roger Federer will get underway at 3.30 a.m. ET. Coverage will be provided by ESPN, with a live stream available on Watch ESPN.