Roger Federer is enjoying a fantastic return to form to kick off the 2014 season, but the 17-time Grand Slam winner faces a familiar obstacle to overcome in the Australian Open semifinals in rival and No. 1 seed Rafael Nadal.
The winner of what should be another epic duel on Friday, Jan. 24, in Melbourne between two of the all-time greats in men's tennis history will face Stanislas Wawrinka in the final.
It's no secret that Federer has struggled mightily with Nadal in the past, particularly in majors. The Spaniard is just 1-2 versus his legendary counterpart at Wimbledon, but is a perfect 7-0 in other Grand Slam matches.
But with Nadal's status as the prohibitive, top-seeded favorite and previous three-time defending champion Novak Djokovic out of the picture, the pressure rests more squarely on his shoulders to succeed.
That may prove easier said than done due to a nagging blister, which has impacted the speed of his serve, per ESPN Stats & Info:
The wear and tear took its toll in Nadal's last match, per the AFP (via the Sydney Morning Herald):
With the forehand it's not a big issue (but) with the serve, a little bit. I feel that with the (protective) tape I can lose the racquet when I'm serving. It's a terrible feeling for a serve, because when you have this feeling you are not able to accelerate at the right moment. I lost a little bit of coordination. Yeah, that's a big deal. I served slower. I served bad.
At least serving isn't what makes Nadal so dangerous. Rather, it's his natural right-handed dominance that generates a powerful, two-handed backhand along with a ridiculous forehand with unprecedented topspin. His uncle and coach, Toni Nadal, discussed why his nephew is Federer's toughest opponent in his take on the match:
Unfortunately, having a blister on his palm is going to cause some discomfort for Rafael Nadal the longer the match goes. That's why Federer must hang tough—something he's proven capable of doing thus far.
Even in blowing two match points in a third-set tiebreaker and failing to capitalize on six break points in one fourth-set game against Andy Murray, "King Roger" kept his cool and closed out his feisty opponent in the quarterfinals. With a changed racket, improved health and a new coach, Federer seems to be well on his way to a better year than he had in 2013.
ESPN analyst Brad Gilbert discussed how Federer's coach, Stefan Edberg, has brought more of an attack-oriented mindset and helped revitalize the 32-year-old's career, per ESPN.com's Matt Wilansky:
Stefan Edberg has had a huge impact. As soon as Federer brought him on, it was a new beginning. Edberg was one of the great serve-and-volley players of all time, and he constantly has Federer thinking about closing in and finishing off points at the net.
That tendency to go to the net revealed itself most in Round 4's straight-sets triumph over Jo-Wilfried Tsonga. Ben Rothenberg of the New York Times noted how successful Federer was while giving a clever nickname to the Federer-Edberg combination:
Nadal faced his own adverse circumstances in a quarterfinal matchup with Grigor Dimitrov, losing the first set before grinding through two tiebreakers and putting the 22nd-seeded upstart away in four sets.
The longer the sixth-seeded Federer can hang around, the more of a threat he is to wear down the remarkably resilient Nadal, who will be dealing with a lot of pain in his left hand and won't get the velocity or consistent placement on his serve to bail him out.
With how sharp Federer has looked for most of the tournament in his service games, he must maintain that level of play and not give Nadal too many break chances, because he'll have a big advantage in returning. Lackluster speed on Nadal's serve should allow Federer to step into powerful returns, where he can use his revised tactics and set up volleying opportunities as a means to gain the upper hand.
Despite the previous dominance displayed by Nadal in this epic rivalry, Rod Laver Arena will foster a four-set triumph for Federer, sending the Swiss sensation to battle his compatriot Wawrinka for Grand Slam title No. 18.
Prediction: Federer wins; 7-5, 6-7, 6-3, 7-5