In the 33rd meeting of two unquestionable legends, Nadal’s trademark power and athleticism proved too much for the ageing Federer, who was undone in all departments in a 7-6 (4), 6-3, 6-3 victory for the world No. 1.
Who is the greatest?
Nadal will now meet Federer’s compatriot Stanislas Wawrinka in the Melbourne showpiece, hoping to become only the third man—after Roy Emerson and Rod Laver—to win the "Multiple Slam" by claiming each of the Grand Slams twice.
As a testament to an all-round tennis master, there can be few higher accolades. The hard courts of the Australian Open are not Nadal’s favoured surface, but once again he found a way to outblast longtime rival Federer.
The pair’s head-to-head record now stands at 23-10 in Nadal’s favour, and he did it during a week in which he has suffered from an excruciating blister, as alluded to prior to the semifinal, per Sky Sports' Razwan Mirza:
I feel that with the tape I can lose the racket when I'm serving. That's a terrible feeling for a serve. I'm going to try to improve. If not, I'm not going to have the chance to be in the final.
He did improve. Sky Sports pointed out early in the contest that Nadal’s blister appeared to be having less of an effect on his game:
Rafael Nadal playing without any strapping on that blistered left hand & has made 11/12 1st serves. Bad news for Roger Federer, no?!— Sky Sports Tennis (@SkySportsTennis) January 24, 2014
Like two boxers throwing range-finding jabs in the opening round, Federer and Nadal sparred with each other early in the first set. The Swiss toyed with the odd serve-and-volley while the Spaniard attempted to click his awesome forehand into gear.
It was Nadal who landed the first big combination—creating two break points at 15-40 midway through the first set by passing his rival twice—first with a crosscourt backhand and then a back-foot forehand. Only Nadal’s own sloppiness allowed Federer to rescue the situation.
Three poor backhands from Nadal, two on break points. Federer holds. 4-3. Nervy moments.— Neil Harman (@NeilHarmanTimes) January 24, 2014
The Swiss saved another break chance in his next service game, forcing Nadal to fire long, but he needed to add variety to his game. The topspin baseline battle always favoured Nadal, who was in the ascendancy as they entered the first-set tiebreaker.
Nadal and Federer play out a rivalry defining rally, with Rafa dictating from baseline & forcing the backhand error pic.twitter.com/hH2XuXqixp— Sky Sports Tennis (@SkySportsTennis) January 24, 2014
A sloppy Federer volley—on one of the occasions he did show intent by attacking the net—handed Nadal the advantage he deserved, and he rode it out for a one-set lead after a Federer backhand landed long.
Tennis commentator David Law summed up the importance of the Spaniard’s advantage:
Federer made 24 unforced errors to Nadal’s 15 in that first set, per the Australian Open's official website, a trend that was always going to see the top seed emerge victorious unless the Swiss could vary his tactics. He actually hit more winners, but drop shots, angles and aggression were needed—easier said than applied against Nadal.
The blister demanded its first medical timeout with Nadal 1-0 up in the second set, and Federer, defending the net, produced a quite sensational volley to ensure he pressured his opponent’s serve by holding his own at 1-1.
However, he struggled to make any impact on the Nadal delivery and even began to lose his cool.
Federer complaining about Nadal's grunting? That's….new. #ausopen— Beyond The Baseline (@SI_BTBaseline) January 24, 2014
Once again, it was Nadal's wall-like defence that created the first three break chances of the second stanza, but Federer clung on with a series of nerveless forehands for 2-2.
The crowd, undoubtedly, were in his corner:
There was only one dictator at Rod Laver Arena, though, and he was wearing Spanish matador red.
More break points arrived at 3-2 when an astonishing get from Nadal, from behind his body, stunned Federer, who could only watch as the break was this time cemented by a forehand winner.
It proved enough to secure a two-set lead in a match that had been razor-tight throughout, albeit always with Nadal as the authority.
This point highlights Nadal's extra gear:
This was the 11th consecutive time Federer had reached the Australian Open semifinal, but he was searching for miracles to extend his adventure as the third set commenced.
The Swiss hit 11 unforced errors to Nadal's six in the second stanza, and the last thing he needed was to fall behind in the third. He did so, finding the net to gift his rival a 2-1 advantage.
The match appeared over, but Federer found the strength of mind to immediately hit back, converting his first break points of the match before defending two more to move ahead 3-2 in the third.
He was only delaying the inevitable, though, wading uphill against a force that refused to give him an inch. Serving at 3-3, Federer this time proved his own worst enemy with a string of poor shots to send Nadal within two games of the final.
It was Federer's 47th unforced error, with the court at his mercy, and it proved the final nail. Nadal had been the governor throughout, and he deservedly closed out the match to book a date in Sunday's final.
There he will meet another Swiss, Wawrinka, who will suffer a yawning gap in experience as he enters his maiden Grand Slam final.
However, he will step onto court as the Swiss No. 1.
Friday's contest with Federer, in truth, was Nadal's final. If the blister holds up—and the Spaniard seems inhumanly capable of turning off the pain switch—he will surely clinch a 14th Grand Slam title.
Nadal appears confident his hand will hold up:
#Nadal "Blister is ok, position of the blister is difficult to cover. To play best of 5 v" the best player in the world is always challenge"— Australian Open (@AustralianOpen) January 24, 2014
However, Wawrinka's best weapon is his backhand, which is perfectly equipped to test that afflicted Nadal forehand. Novak Djokovic has already fallen foul of "Stan," so an intriguing showdown awaits.