It's not the matchup we were expecting. Outside of the Roger Federer fan club, most folks probably thought we would be breaking down a Rafael Nadal versus Andy Murray semifinal, with the winner facing Novak Djokovic.
But Federer crashed the party (and for that matter, so did Stanislas Wawrinka). And now Nadal and Federer face off in a match that doesn't just feel like a battle for a berth in an Australian Open final, but also the culmination of one of the greatest rivalries in the history of the sport.
Once the careers of both players have been completed, one of them will surely earn the distinction of the greatest men's player of all time. Federer currently has 17 Grand Slam titles. Nadal has won 13, but he's also younger, is 22-10 in the head-to-head series and has beaten Federer eight of 10 times in Grand Slams.
If they both stopped playing today, Federer would be considered the greatest of all time. But Nadal has clearly made the rivalry a rather one-sided affair. The winner in the Australian Open semifinal will control the narrative when we talk about Federer vs. Nadal in the future (at least until the next time they compete in a Grand Slam, if that time comes).
Yet this remains the alpha rivalry in tennis, the ultimate contrast in style. Lefty versus righty. One-handed versus two-handed backhand. Art versus effort. Beauty versus brawn. Flat versus spin. Swiss sensibilities versus Iberian sensibilities. Nadal and Novak Djokovic have played each other more times (39 and counting), contested more finals, have a closer head-to-head (22-17 Nadal) and are closer in age. Yet Federer-Nadal persists.
The storylines for this match are pretty amazing outside of the historical precedence as well. Federer had a pretty rough 2013. Nadal won two Grand Slams and was the ATP Tour's best player.
Federer appeared to be on the down slope of his career, replaced in the triumvirate of the tennis world by Murray. Nadal seemed to have returned to the game's throne, displacing temporary wearer of the crown, Djokovic.
And if Nadal wins, those narratives won't change much. "Yes," we'll say, "Federer can still make a run here and again, but another Grand Slam win is beyond him." One title in his last 16 Grand Slam appearances will reinforce that mindset.
But if he wins the first huge tournament of 2014, well, how much will that shake up the ranks?
Of course, to listen to Federer, he's simply focused on one match, not his entire legacy. His comments, via Piers Newbery of BBC Sport:
He's been tough to play against, no doubt. I'm happy I get a chance to play him in a Slam again. I don't remember the last time we played. The head-to-head record is in his favour. For me, it's a dream run, and I hope I can keep it up against Rafa.
A dream run, indeed. And perhaps a perfect culmination to what has been a dream rivalry for tennis fans over the years.
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