Australian Open 2017: Roger Federer And Rafael Nadal Breathe New Life Into An Old Rivalry

Though it has an undeniable ring to it, Roger Federer versus Rafael Nadal is not the best rivalry in men’s tennis. The numbers prove it, with Nadal dominating the series and the major finals within it to a large degree.

But Federer versus Nadal for the Australian Open title on Sunday certainly feels like the match that the sport wanted, maybe even needed, and the wider world might agree that a revival performance of a classic is rather reassuring in these uncertain times.

Federer and Nadal have been respectful rivals, with only the occasional breaks in decorum, for more than a decade. Although they are five years apart in age — Federer is 35, Nadal 30 — they are together for good in our collective mind’s eye and their own eyes, too, after their run of classic matches at Wimbledon, the Australian Open and elsewhere in the 2000s.

“It is special to play with Roger in a final of a Grand Slam, I cannot lie,” Nadal said after winning a nearly five-hour five-set semifinal over Grigor Dimitrov on Friday, 6-3, 5-7, 7-6 (5), 6-7 (4), 6-4. “It’s great. It’s exciting for me, and for both of us, that we’re still there and we’re still fighting for important events.”

The prospect of a Nadal-Federer revival in a major final seemed unlikely with Andy Murray and Novak Djokovic sharing the spoils at the top of the men’s game in 2016. It seemed even more unlikely when Federer traveled to Majorca, in Spain, for the opening of Nadal’s tennis academy on Oct. 19, with both men taking lengthy timeouts from tennis because of injuries.

“I told him I wish we could do a charity match or something, but I was on one leg and he had the wrist injury,” Federer said. “We were playing some mini-tennis with some juniors, and we’re like, ‘That’s the best we can do right now.’”

Three months later, they have done better in Melbourne, showing remarkable form and resolve and going the distance against younger men. Federer had to win five-setters against No. 5 seed Kei Nishikori and No. 4 seed Stan Wawrinka. In the semifinal against Wawrinka, his friend and former Olympic doubles partner, Federer fought off break points early in the fifth set that could have allowed Wawrinka to take control of the match for good.

“I thought in the beginning of the fifth that perhaps the wall had appeared in front of me, and that it was the end of this nice story,” Federer said.

Nadal had to fight off two break points of his own in the fifth set before holding off Dimitrov, a 25-year-old underachiever who looks ready to achieve plenty from here.

“First of all, I hope to recover well,” said Nadal, who will have one fewer day of rest before the final than Federer.

Nadal has done it before in Melbourne in the same situation. In 2009, he played an even lengthier five-set semifinal with his compatriot Fernando Verdasco that left him unable to fall asleep until 5 a.m. Even with less rest, he beat Federer in a five-set final that left Federer in tears during the awards ceremony.

“God, it’s killing me,” he said with his voice cracking as he backed away from the microphone.

Rod Laver Arena has been a sweet and sour place for both men. Federer has been beaten there by Nadal in an Australian Open final and by Djokovic three times in the semifinals. He also lost to Lleyton Hewitt during a Davis Cup semifinal in 2003 between Switzerland and Australia.

Nadal has experienced major setbacks in the arena, too, none more memorable than his loss to Djokovic in the 2012 final in a brutal test that lasted nearly six hours and left both men unable to stand at the trophy ceremony.

Either Federer will extend his lead in career Grand Slam singles titles with his 18th, or Nadal will narrow the gap with Federer to just two by winning his 15th.

Still, the historical implications are deeply subsidiary to the anticipation over the match itself. The two men have not played in a Grand Slam final since the 2011 French Open. Nadal is 23-11 against Federer, including a 3-0 record at the Australian Open, where they last met in the 2014 semifinals.

Asked if all that gave him an edge, Nadal — never one to overestimate his chances in public — said no.

“Was a long time ago,” he said. “Is a different match, different moment, for both of us. I think this match is completely different than what happened before. Is special. We have not been there in that situation for a while, so that makes the match different.”

Federer actually won their most recent match, in 2015, which was indoors on a hardcourt in the final of the tour event in Basel, Federer’s hometown in Switzerland.

But he had lost five straight to Nadal before that and has not beaten him in a Grand Slam tournament since the Wimbledon final in 2007.

The court in Laver Arena is playing quicker than usual, but it is still not quite a net rusher’s or big server’s paradise. Extended rallies were still the rule when Nadal and Dimitrov faced off, but even if the speed increase is marginal, it could help Federer get more penetration on his shots against Nadal’s redoubtable defenses.

The concern for Federer is that Nadal had the ideal warm-up partner in Dimitrov, who plays a similar all-court game to Federer and also has a flashy one-handed backhand.

Dimitrov hit it beautifully under pressure on Friday night, particularly down the line, and yet he still lost. Federer’s backhand, which has generally looked strong, even off deep balls to the corners, has long tended to break down under the relentless pressure of the left-handed Nadal’s whipping forehand.

All that said, this certainly looks like a more neutral venue in tactical terms than a clay court or a slow hardcourt, which would heavily favor Nadal.

“Predicting the outcome is impossible,” Wawrinka said. “Roger has two full days to recover. I think it will be a monster match.”

Their history suggests otherwise. The Nadal-Federer matchup has fired a few blanks through the years. Federer’s rivalry with Djokovic, which the Serb leads by 23-22, has been a more reliable generator of suspense (and edge). So has Nadal versus Djokovic, the most prolific rivalry of the men’s Open era, which Djokovic leads, 26-23.

But Federer versus Nadal can still outgenerate them all in terms of buzz and nostalgia. Sunday should be no exception.

“Both of us never thought we’d be here again in the final of Australia, so we both feel very happy,” Nadal said through the fatigue on Friday night as he addressed the crowd. “I hope you are happy, too.”


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