Heading into the first meeting in a major in two years between the two players to have defined this glorious era of men’s tennis, the narrative was of Roger Federer’s revival and how Rafael Nadal’s problematically placed blister was hampering his serve. But after less than two-and-a-half hours, Nadal had ensured a continuation of his dominance over his great rival to take his record to 23-10 with a straight-sets victory in which he didn’t face a break point until the third set.
“I think I played probably my best match of the tournament,” Nadal said afterward. “So very, very, very happy that I played my best match in that semifinal against Roger.”
In the final awaits Stanislas Wawrinka, another Swiss against whom Nadal has an even more dominant record, having won all 12 of their previous meetings. Few would now bet against him claiming his third Grand Slam title in the last four to move level with Pete Sampras on 14. Only Federer, on 17, would then stand ahead of him and while Federer has still shown signs in Melbourne that he is far from a spent force at 32 years of age, he must surely be looking anxiously over his shoulder at his nemesis-in-chief.
Nadal had come into the contest having struggled with his serve in the last two rounds against Kei Nishikori and Grigor Dimitrov. In contrast, Federer had dispatched of Jo-Wilfried Tsonga and Andy Murray showcasing the all-court style and awe-inspiring shot-making of his prime. Federer had a new larger racket head and a new coach in Stefan Edberg too, as he talked of his excitement of figuring out a way to oust Nadal for the first time in a Grand Slam in almost seven years.
He started positively, taking the game to Nadal and trying to get to the net whenever possible. Yet, it was Federer who had to save break points before eventually getting into a tie-break. And, as has happened so many times in the past, Federer proved unable to maintain that aggressiveness against the sustained assault from Nadal. A pivotal volley was dumped into the net as he slipped early on in the breaker to hand his opponent the initiative. Fittingly, it was the pattern of shots that has proved so decisive between these two down the years that decided the opening set when Federer couldn’t control a backhand from a Nadal forehand that reared up high off the Rod Laver Arena court full of beguiling topspin.
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“For sure was very, very important,” Nadal said of taking the tie-break. “It was decisive to win that first set, after winning the first set, a tough first set. So after a few tough rallies at the end of the first set, there was a lot of confidence for me.”
There may have been some optimism for Federer early in the second set when Nadal asked the trainer to the court to redo the troublesome tape on his left palm. It did not derail the Spaniard in the slightest. Federer staved off a break point to level the set up at 2-2, but was unable to do the same two games later as Nadal took a 4-2 lead and held out with comfort to take a decisive advantage.
Federer halted Nadal’s progress when he broke back early in the third, but the man from Mallorca was relentless and broke at 3-3, before he conquered Federer’s serve once more with a barrage of forehands to take the match.
Federer was left to reflect on a positive start to the year, but having ultimately again fallen short against a man that has caused him more strategic headaches than any other in his glittering career.
“I think Rafa did a good job of keeping the pressure on me,” Federer reflected. “You know, I might have gotten a little tired, you know, maybe in the third set. But that's maybe just the lack of trying to get back to an absolute 100 percent.
“But overall I'm very happy. Rafa played well and he played solid. So, you know, I don't have crazy regrets tonight other than, you know, maybe not having created more opportunities for myself. You know, Rafa was his usual self, what I kind of expected.”