Before we begin, one thing must be acknowledged: Rafael Nadal is the baddest man on the planet. He's the best player in the world. No matter what happens in Melbourne, he's going to be the No. 1 player now and into the future.
If winning 10 tournaments last year after coming back from a series of debilitating knee injuries wasn't enough, perhaps advancing to the Australian semis while Novak Djokovic faltered on his favorite surface was. There is no debate—at least none for rational human beings.
Before we begin, one more thing must be acknowledged: Roger Federer, by sheer numbers, is the baddest man in tennis history. No matter what happens in Melbourne, he'll still have more majors than any player in history, have perhaps the most elongated period of success in the sport's history and will have helped reinvigorate the sport in the post-Sampras, post-Agassi era.
If the 17 Grand Slam titles stretched over nine years weren't enough, perhaps advancing to the Australian semis after re-inventing his game, adopting a wider racket and continuing to push to get better at age 32 was. Watching the changes from 2004 Federer to 2014 Federer takes on this Tiger Woodsian feel.
Glad we got that out of the way. Because no matter how little this match changes in the grand scheme—and it changes literally nothing, don't get it twisted—Friday's semifinal at Rod Laver Arena is special. It's "stay up until 7 a.m. ET" special, if need be. This is not a match limited to only hardcore tennis fans, but fans of great athletes and sports in general.
It's special because it might well be the last time Rafael Nadal and Roger Federer play with so much on the line.
Nadal, as stated, is at the top of his game. He's still four-plus months away from his 28th birthday, looking spry and brilliant and in command of his game. If you believe in necessary wake-up calls, Nadal even got one of those in his quarterfinal matchup versus Grigor Dimitrov. The Bulgarian stole the first set and pushed Rafa to tiebreaks in each of the next two before faltering 6-2 in the fourth and deciding.
Despite the struggles, Nadal has seen a fourth set just once in Melbourne. Perhaps the only physical thing really working in Nadal's detriment is a nasty blister that affected his serve versus Dimitrov.
"When you lose confidence with one important shot like the serve, then you are not able to play the rest of the shots with confidence," Nadal said, per Matt Cronin of Tennis.com. "So I'm going to try to improve that, because I'll need it in the semi-final if I'm going to have the chance to be in the final."
In fact, looking at the history of this rivalry, that blister might be the only thing holding him back from beating Federer. For all the talk of Nadal-Federer being on the Mount Rushmore of tennis rivalries, the Spaniard is definitely the George Washington to Federer's Thomas Jefferson. Nadal holds a 22-10 all-time lead versus the Swiss, including wins in each of the last four and eight of 10 Grand Slam matchups.
The matches? Sure, they've been epic. Federer's five-set thriller at Wimbledon in 2007. Nadal's in London a year later, in the best tennis match I've ever watched. Nadal's five-setter at the 2009 Australian Open. All amazing, captivating, jaw-dropping matches.
The results? Yeah, those have gone Nadal's way.
"Who knows? He's been tough to play against, no doubt," Federer said of his chances, per ESPN. "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."
Look at that quote again. Dream run. Happy to get a chance. I hope. While Federer has never been one to go all Richard Sherman on everyone and drop mics—though I'd be 100 percent down with more Shermans in any sport—the wording there is awfully strange. It's not too often you hear the Michael Jordan of his sport being all aww-shucks about winning major trophies.
Then again, after his lost 2013 campaign, maybe this is just Federer secure in his mortality. He's happy to be in the semifinals—mostly because he doesn't know how many of these runs he has left. Adding Stefan Edberg and healing his back helps, but someone as intelligent as Federer knows tennis history. He knows that only one person his age or older, Andre Agassi at the 2003 Australian, has won a Grand Slam since 1972.
Thirty is the new 20—everywhere except tennis. There's a palpable desperation apparent with every stroke, even as Federer plays his best tennis since his 2012 Wimbledon title. He defeated Jo-Wilfried Tsonga and Andy Murray on the way to his battle with Nadal, giving him one fewer win against top-10 opponents than he had in all of 2013.
With Nadal arguably struggling more physically than Federer at this point, if there's a time for Federer to make his one last run, this is it.
If Nadal wins, perhaps this is it. Maybe we've reached the point where Nadal-Federer isn't actually that special in reality, only in our collective memories. Maybe the three straight-sets beatdowns Nadal laid on Federer last season were indicative of the chasm between their respective skills at this point. Maybe Nadal is the best player in the world, and Federer is just a damn good older dude.
Maybe the rivalry is dead.
All of that could be true, or none of it. What's clear is we need to cherish this matchup, because we don't know when or if it'll come again.
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