Stay up late. Wake up early. Do whatever you have to do to get in front of a television in the wee hours of Friday morning. Roger and Rafa are going at it again.
It was nearly 10 years ago—late March of 2004—when 22-year-old Roger Federer stood across the net from a teenage Spaniard named Rafael Nadal during the early rounds of the ATP Masters series in Miami. Federer was in the midst of one of the best years of his career, having won his first three tournaments, including the 2004 Australian Open, to start a season that year that featured 11 victories in 17 tournaments, three of which were majors.
Nadal was, in tennis terms, a nobody. The new kid on the block. Wait, is that guy wearing Capri pants?
Nadal beat Federer in straight sets that day in Miami, one of just six losses in 80 matches for Roger that calendar year.
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The two did not face each other again until one year later in Miami, that time the finals. Early in his career, Nadal was seen as something of a clay-court specialist—a bit of a one-trick pony in tennis circles—but he took the first two sets over Federer on the hard court that day, nearly winning the final in straight sets before Federer held on for the third-set tiebreaker. From there, Federer rolled in the final two sets en route to another tournament title.
Nadal used the loss to Federer as motivation. He did not lose another final in more than a year, defeating Federer four times in that span, including the 2005 French Open semifinals. Someone finally had Roger's number.
Over the last decade, Federer and Nadal have dominated the sport. The two have combined to win more than 81 percent of their singles matches with about 1,600 victories between them. They have won a collective 138 tournament titles, earning more than $140 million in prize money (Note: Federer, who turned pro three years earlier, and is more than four years older, has a distinct advantage in career wins and prize money).
And then there is this: Federer and Nadal have won 30 of the last 42 Grand Slam titles.
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Since Federer's first Grand Slam victory, winning Wimbledon in 2003, only five men other than Roger and Rafa have won majors, with Novak Djokovic and Andy Murray combining to win seven of the most recent 12 Grand Slam events. And yet, with Federer beating Murray in the quarterfinals and Djokovic losing in the same round on his side of the draw, it's Federer and Nadal with the chance to get back to the finals and, potentially, win another major.
Federer dispatched Murray on Wednesday, looking as good as he has in two years on the ATP World Tour. Via ATPWorldTour.com:
It's really a big pleasure for me being back in the semi-finals. This one feels different because of the tougher times I've had in slams, Wimbledon, at the US Open. It's nice to be back in the semis and defend my points from last year.
I definitely sensed that [Wednesday], I am back physically. I'm explosive out there. I can get to balls. I'm not afraid to go for balls. It was a great game on many levels today, not just physically. Also just mentally it was tough. Then I really played some good tennis. I was very happy.
If Federer is that happy with the state of his game, Nadal will serve as the ultimate test of that resurgence. After missing considerable time over the last few years with injuries, Nadal has worked himself back into form, currently the top-ranked player in the world on the heels of two Grand Slam titles last season.
Federer may be back at the top of his game, but Nadal is back at the top of the game.
Nadal does, however, have a nasty blister on his serving hand that gave him fits in the quarterfinals. From Melbourne and Victoria's Herald Sun:
The problem is not the blister. The problem is the place. Is very difficult to cover that blister here. Is not painful, but I cannot play without that cover [on Wednesday].
I will have to try and improve the hand in the next two days. I can practice but the problem is if I don't protect the hand it will get worse.
Nadal noted that covering the blister with tape creates an issue of control and coordination on his serve. Federer told the press he is planning for Nadal to be at full strength, repeating that he's just happy to get the chance to face Rafa again.
"I don't remember the last time we played," Federer told reporters, via the Herald Sun.
Good thing we do, Roger.
The most recent meeting was at the Barclays ATP World Tour in the season finale last year, when Nadal beat Federer in straight sets. It was like two months ago, Roger.
Maybe Federer meant he didn't remember the last time he beat Nadal. That hasn't happened since 2012, with Nadal winning the last four matches they've played.
The two have faced each other 32 times in their careers, 20 of which have come in tournament finals, with eight—soon to be nine—having come in semifinals.
Nadal has won 22, including 14 of their last 18 matches.
The two have played just 14 times on hard courts, however, with Nadal winning eight to Federer's six. (To be fair, the career numbers are a tad skewed. The two have played 15 times on clay with Nadal winning 13, while just three times on grass—Federer's specialty—with Nadal winning one of their three epic Wimbledon finals).
Given their combined success, getting to see the two play against each other in a major has been, in relative terms, a rarity. The two have faced off just 10 times in Grand Slam events, with Nadal leading the rivalry 8-2.
The two just have this way of capturing the attention of more than just the tennis world. That Nadal has Federer's number just adds to the rivalry, considering how Federer has otherwise dominated the sport in his career. Now, in so many ways, it's Federer who gets to play the role of underdog. The winner of this match will face Stanislas Wawrinka—Federer's friend and countryman—in the finals.
There is so much on the line, which is how it should be when Rafa and Roger face off. Whenever the two play, it's a big event. When they play in a major, the world stops to watch. Even if it's the middle of the night.
Last week in writing a story about two legendary rivals in a different sport—Peyton Manning and Tom Brady—I was asked to rank where the quarterbacks placed among the best rivalries in sports today.
I put Manning and Brady third, behind Federer and Nadal and, in the top spot, Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo.
The logic for putting Federer and Nadal second was this (and yes, I'm quoting myself):
Clearly Federer is on the outside of the dominant stage of his career, but he is looking for a resurgence this season. To be fair to both, if this article was written a few years ago, there is no doubt the rivalry between Federer and Nadal would be tops on the list.
Perhaps I should have waited a week. Perhaps, like many of us have over the last few years, I should never count Federer out. No matter who wins on Friday, the match should provide great drama and fantastic tennis. It is a can't-miss event, even if you have to wake up insanely early or stay up incredibly late to see it (match kicks off at 3:30 a.m. ET on ESPN).