Their rivalry has been the showcase of tennis for nearly nine years, attracting the attention of the sports world and pushing tennis to greater popularity. They have captivated tennis fans with contrasting styles and personalities.
Best of all, this rivalry has evolved in a new direction. They are meeting for the 33rd time in their career, but are different players than they were when they ruled all of tennis five years ago. Their greatness continues to evolve.
Just how will this match be different? What are the keys for each player to defeat the other, and how will each respond to the other?
The rivalry of the ages is about to witness another incredible chapter.
Those that make the case for Nadal as the greatest player of all time, immediately point out his 22-10 career record versus Federer. He won their first career match at Miami’s hard courts in 2004, and ripped off six wins in their first seven meetings.
It’s fair to say that Nadal has controlled this rivalry from the beginning. He has been a match-up nightmare for his Swiss rival, attacking his backhand with otherworldly topspin and retrieving shots with defensive tenacity.
Nadal has most dominated their rivalry on clay courts, highlighted by four French Open final wins (2006-08, 2011).
Since 2011, Nadal has won eight of 10 meetings including all four matches in 2013. He has the special capacity to assert his mental toughness and belief against Federer, and has generally outlasted him with consistent baseline power and efficiency.
Federer has had more success on hard courts versus Nadal, but still trails on this surface 8-6. On outdoor hard courts, Federer has dropped seven of nine matches to Nadal.
This is especially critical at the Australian Open, where the conditions allow Nadal to generate greater bounce on his topspin and play further back on the baseline. Nadal defeated Federer in their classic five-set 2009 Australian Open final. He claimed their other meeting Down Under in 2012, a four-set semifinal.
Clearly, Nadal comes into their 2014 semifinal meeting with a greater resume of success.
It seems strange to point out that Federer has coasted along with relatively little media fanfare. There have been questions about his age and health following an injury-plagued and disappointing 2013, so his success in his early, easy matches was not too noteworthy.
His first real test came in the fourth round, but he dismantled second-tier star, Jo Wilfried-Tsonga in straight sets. Federer was highly efficient at the net, winning 34 of 41 points. He was especially dominant as a receiver, putting more pressure on Tsonga’s serve and ultimately producing more winners (43-29) and fewer unforced errors (21-28).
Federer finally dropped his first set in the quarterfinals versus Andy Murray, but had already raced to a commanding two-sets lead. He came to the net 66 times, and once again created more winners (54-41) and fewer unforced errors (42-46) than his opponent.
Federer’s run to the semifinals has clearly received a boost from new coach Stefan Edberg. His aggressive mentality has been bolstered by his mindset and efficiency at the net. He appears intent on riding this attack to try and claim his fifth Australian Open crown.
The World No. 1 has followed Federer’s pattern of relatively easy matches into the quarterfinals. He benefited by playing only one set in the first round versus Bernard Tomic, who retired with a hip injury.
Nadal’s best performance was a thrashing of talented Gael Monfils in the third round, dropping only six total games.
His fourth-round victory over Kei Nishikori was a difficult straight-sets victory that saw him exacerbate a large blister in the palm of his left and dominate hand. Since, he has wrapped his hand with bandages, which could be a factor going forward.
Nadal then survived a stiff quarterfinals test from young Grigor Dimitrov. He dropped the first set before rebounding with two tough tiebreaker wins and ultimately finished the match in four sets. It was difficult for him to break Dimitrov’s wide serve, and he was kept off-balance by the other’s powerful inside-out forehand and fine shot-creating.
Dimitrov was the ideal kind of all-court opponent that will be a semblance of Federer’s game. Nadal had to work out of difficulties and mistakes that Dimitrov forced, and should be more battle-hardened for his next competitive showdown.
Unexpected injuries: Nadal has played with tendinitis in his knees, and has dealt with a perpetual threat in the tarsal scaphoid bone in his left foot. He is nursing an ugly blister in his main tennis hand, where the butt of the racket grinds and irritates with each forehand. He played through it OK versus Dimitrov, but it could prove to affect his control.
Federer, for the present, seems to have recovered from the back problems that plagued him in 2013. Besides the pain and more restricted movement, Federer’s serve was hampered. It likely will not be a factor, but a back injury can crop up at any time once a player has had problems. If so, it would prove disastrous.
Energy: Both players should be fresh and ready for their match. They both were able to play easy matches the first week and avoid the ill effects of the scorching heat. They each played tough four-set matches in the quarterfinals, so they should be ready to go the distance.
This is an especial assist for Federer who is five years older. He has had difficulties more recently in following up marathon matches with his best effort. One year ago, he paid the price in playing back-to-back five-set matches, of which the second match cost him energy against Andy Murray in his semifinal loss.
This is another version of Roger Federer. He still possesses his liquid-whip forehand and wonderful footwork and instincts at the baseline, but he knows he cannot survive exclusively by trading deep blows with Nadal.
Federer must continue to serve well. Deep into the third set of the Murray match, Federer had held his service game 49 consecutive times. He is not booming his serve as hard at Grigor Dimitrov, but is mixing it up well enough in the low 120 mph range. He is still the smartest server in tennis when his accuracy is acute.
Above all, Federer must attack the net. Early success at the net will encourage him to stay the course when Nadal inevitably hits some adrenaline-laced passes. Federer needs to average at least 15 approaches per set and close to 80 percent success rate there. He must pick spots to serve-and-volley, but also must look to come in when he delivers big corner forehands.
He has also been underrated with his return game in this tournament. He must continue to force many break point opportunities, and this time against Nadal he needs to cash in with them.
Federer must continue to play clean tennis. Traditionally versus Nadal, Federer’s backhand plays well in streaks, but has difficulties in holding up over four or five sets. He can offset some of Nadal’s topspin attack by picking up the ball early when possible, something Dimitrov did effectively versus Nadal.
Nadal’s plan versus Federer is more proven. He knows how to attack the baseline version of Federer and has learned to be patient with his blueprint. He will still look to serve wide in the ad court and find uncanny times to change up his serving pattern.
Most important, Nadal must force the style of this match. He does not want Federer controlling the tempo with short and creative points.
Nadal wants to force Federer to grind more and wear down. He will set himself for a long four or five sets battle and look to pound away with body blows.
A good start for Nadal could also disturb Federer, but Nadal will not be deterred if he is the one to fall behind. His eyes and sneer can tell a lot about how locked into the match he is. He wants to turn this into a street brawl, like usual.
If Nadal plays like Nadal, he will win.
Roger Federer can win this match with a quick start, but he must win the first set. It will allow him to establish his serve and play from a position of strength.
If Federer gets backed into a first-set deficit, it will be almost mission impossible to try and win three of four sets. In the past, he has fallen to late match pressure when facing Nadal.
This match will likely see Federer get off to the lead he needs. Nadal can be a slow starter, and this could be the opening Federer needs. Plus, it could take the better part of two sets for Nadal to adapt to the new adjustments in Federer’s offense.
But Nadal is the ultimate problem solver, perhaps the greatest ever. He knows how to pick himself up when things are not going his way. He can fight his way through frustration, and actually find greater concentration and accuracy.
Nadal will have a couple sets where he does indeed turn this into a ground war. If he can keep pushing Federer to play near-perfect tennis, it will be hard for the Swiss Maestro to play with the efficiency he has shown in previous matches. The rule book gets thrown away when facing Nadal.
Call this one a tough, four-set victory for Nadal. It could be stretched to a fifth set, but either way, the raging Spaniard is the best fighter in tennis. It’s unlikely Federer will knock him out.