This chapter of the rivalry was supposed to be different.
Roger Federer had been playing brilliant tennis over the last two weeks, and it was, it seemed, a golden chance for the aging star to renew his rivalry against nemesis Rafael Nadal.
Instead, the match turned out to be business as usual. Nadal took out Federer 7-6 (4), 6-3, 6-3 in two hours and 24 minutes, and it didn't even feel that close. For a match that was hyped to the high heavens, it was a disappointing, if not predictable, outcome.
For years now, Federer and Nadal matches have been larger-than-life affairs that have more to do with the past and future of tennis than the present. After all, the intrigue of a combined 30 slams overrides any single tournament narrative. This was certainly the case headed into this match, which was far from being simply a slam semifinal in the way the Stanislas Wawrinka vs. Tomas Berdych dual was the night before.
In fact, even Sports Illustrated's typically restrained Jon Wertheim wrote that this had a chance "to be a career-defining match for both players."
Unfortunately for Federer, it ended up being more rivalry-defining than career-defining.
Though Federer came into this match feeling healthy for the first time in over a year and playing with the support of a new racket and a new coach, the legendary Stefan Edberg, everything he tried came up short against the world No. 1.
The man with 17 major titles couldn't make any inroads on Nadal's service games, only generating two break points, both in one game, and both generated by generous Nadal errors.
Federer also accumulated 50 unforced errors to only 34 winners. Though he attempted to take command of the match by staying aggressive with 42 trips to the net, he hit most of his approach shots meekly to the middle of the court around the service line. He was too often a sitting duck at the net, waiting for Nadal's signature passing shots to whiz right by him. When he did volley, he often was off balance and hit them into the net or, worse, far outside the requisite lines.
But make no mistake about it, this match was much more about the greatness of Nadal than it was about the shortcomings of Federer. Nadal was just superb.
.@darren_cahill says the important thing: "This is not about Federer. This is about how good Nadal is." Repeat & write it on a blackboard.— Matt Zemek (@mzemek) January 24, 2014
The Spaniard played light years better than he did in his previous two matches against Kei Nishikori and Grigor Dimitrov. Like most champions, including Federer during his prime, Nadal is at his best when the stakes are the highest. He respects Federer too much to ever take their matches lightly, as he confirmed in his post-victory press conference:
Q. Because you have such a good record against Roger, do you go on court with a very clear mind against him?
RAFAEL NADAL: No, I go on court knowing that is a really tough match and if I am not playing my best, I will not have the chance to win, so...
As nostalgic as Federer vs. Nadal matches make us all, it's time to face the music: Nadal owns Federer, and he has for quite some time. Memories of past titanic clashes, such as their epic 2008 Wimbeldon final, have blinded many from the present, which is that, where Nadal is concerned, Federer doesn't have any answers.
Nadal now leads their head-to-head 23-10. He is 9-2 against Federer in majors and has won the last five in a row overall.
Federer hasn't beaten Nadal at a major since way back in the 2007 Wimbledon final, a five-set affair that saw the 20-year-old Nadal give the four-time defending Wimbledon champion quite a scare. On court after that match, as a 25-year-old Federer received his fifth Wimbledon trophy, he joked with BBC commentator Sue Barker that, "I'm happy [with] every one I get now, before [Nadal] takes them all."
Little did he know at the time what a prophet he was. Since that match, Nadal has beaten Federer three times at the Australian Open, twice at the French Open and once at Wimbledon and added 10 major titles to his mantle. Now, Nadal is one win away from a Pete Sampras-tying 14th slam, while Federer and his 17 slams are headed back to the drawing board.
The peak and the turning point in their rivalry was the 2008 Wimbledon final, largely regarded as one of the best matches in tennis history. In his third Wimbledon final, Nadal was finally able to get the best of Federer on the lawns that he owned, 6-4, 6-4, 6-7 (5), 6-7 (8), 9-7. Headed into that match, Nadal only lead the head-to-head 11-6, and most of his victories had come on clay, but after that, he became a threat on all surfaces.
Nadal is the same age now as Federer was at the 2008 Wimbledon final.— Chris Chase (@chaztopher) January 24, 2014
Though Nadal and his unrelenting pace and defense are certainly a huge matchup problem for Federer, it's important to note that the timing of the rivalry has never been favorable for Federer, who was in his prime when Nadal was just coming up the ranks and has been in a slow but steady decline since Nadal has hit his strides on all surfaces. The five years that separate them and their tennis careers are significant when it comes to evaluating their rivalry and the impact it has on their place in tennis history.
Still, it's a big asterisk on Federer's career that he has such a head-to-head deficit against one of his chief competitors, and it's certainly a knock to the luster of the renowned rivalry that, even when on an upswing, Federer can no longer convincingly challenge Nadal on the biggest stages of the sport.
But while the rest of us are focusing on what this match means in the big picture, Federer and Nadal are trying to keep things focused on the present.
Federer still sees himself as on the rise, which he should. His back-to-back wins over Jo-Wilfried Tsonga and Andy Murray are very promising, and compared to last year, when he lost to Sergiy Stakhovsky at Wimbledon and Tommy Robredo at the U.S. Open, this major was a step in the right direction.
"I think this is a very good start to the season for me overall," he told the press. "I played some really good tennis here. I still feel my best tennis is only ahead of me right now."
And with another big victory in his pocket, Nadal will march forward to the final, where he will try and move one major closer to catching Federer in the history books.
Federer's improved health and Nadal's upcoming battle in the final with Wawrinka might not be the most dynamic narratives, but they are the ones we're left with. That's what's happening in the tennis world now.
It will always be exciting to see two legends of the sport square off, but this semifinal dud confirmed that time has left the glory days of the Federer vs. Nadal rivalry in the rearview mirror.