Australian Open 2017 Men's Finals: Federer vs. Nadal Preview, Predictions

Merlisa Lawrence Corbett@@merlisaFeatured ColumnistJanuary 27, 2017

Australian Open 2017 Men's Finals: Federer vs. Nadal Preview, Predictions

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    Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal pose during an event promoting the Rod Laver Cup.
    Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal pose during an event promoting the Rod Laver Cup.Rick Rycroft/Associated Press

    After two thrilling five-set semifinals, the 2017 Australian Open gets the epic men's final matchup most fans longed to see: Roger Federer vs. Rafael Nadal.

    It's the "Throwback in the Outback," with longtime rivals meeting for the 35th time, the ninth in a Grand Slam final.

    Along with the Serena and Venus Williams women's singles showdown, this marks the first time in a Grand Slam that all the players in the singles finals are in their thirties, per ESPNW

    On Friday, Nadal, 30, defeated Grigor Dimitrov 6-3 5-7 7-6(5) 6-7(4) 6-4. A day earlier, Federer, 35, took out Stan Wawrinka 7-5, 6-3, 1-6, 4-6, 6-3.

    Although Federer and Nadal have won a combined 31 Grand Slams, their run at this year's Australian Open is perhaps the most surprising. When the tournament began, the buzz centered around defending champion Novak Djokovic and his battle to reclaim the No. 1 ranking from Andy Murray. 

    However, the top two seeds were gone by the fourth round. Denis Istomin, a wild-card entry, ousted Djokovic in the second round. Mischa Zverev upended Murray, 7-5, 5-7, 6-2, 6-4 in the fourth.

    Meanwhile, Federer and Nadal were hoping to make a good show of it after coming off injuries. Federer took six months to recover from a knee injury. Nadal had been nursing a wrist injury. 

    After Nadal's win, a reporter asked him about when Federer visited the opening of his academy in Spain and the two were too injured to play an exhibition. The question was whether Nadal ever imagined they would meet a few months later in the Australian Open final.

    Nadal responded, "No, in that moment, for sure we never thought that we had the chance to be, again, in a final, and especially in the first of the year." 

    "They have defied the odds and their critics, their ages and their seedings, and, of course, their inspired opponents throughout this unforgettable fortnight," wrote Tennis.com's Ed McGrogan 

    Will they produce another instant classic? The following is the preview and prediction for the 35th installment in the Federer vs. Nadal series. 

     

Federer at the 2017 Australian Open

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    Roger Federer celebrates after winning a match at the 2017 Australian Open.
    Roger Federer celebrates after winning a match at the 2017 Australian Open.WILLIAM WEST/Getty Images

    Coming in seeded No. 17, Federer took the tough road to the finals. He had to survive two five-set matches, including a semifinal win against three-time Grand Slam champion and compatriot Wawrinka.

    It was Federer’s 19th win over Wawrinka in their 22 matches. Federer raced out to a two-set lead before Wawrinka found his game and took the next two sets, 6-1, 6-4.

    In the fifth set, Wawrinka, who took a medical timeout in the second set, appeared to struggle physically, as Federer moved him from side to side.

    Federer overcame the speedy Kei Nishikori 6-7(4), 6-4, 6-1, 4-6, 6-3 in the fourth round. After the match, Federer celebrated like he was 19 again and winning his first Slam.

    He had a routine third-round win over Tomas Berdych and a win in straight sets over Mischa Zverev in the quarterfinals. 

     

Nadal at the 2017 Australian Open

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    Rafael Nadal reacts to winning a nearly five hour match in the semifinals of the 2017 Australian Open.
    Rafael Nadal reacts to winning a nearly five hour match in the semifinals of the 2017 Australian Open.SAEED KHAN/Getty Images

    It took Nadal nearly five hours to finish off a stubborn Dimitrov. After racing to a quick win in the first set, 6-3, Nadal had a serious tussle with the big-serving Bulgarian.

    After Dimitrov took the second set 7-5, they traded tiebreak wins in the third and fourth sets. In the fifth set, facing break points at 3-4, Nadal became more aggressive, charging the net. He simply wrestled that game away from Dimitrov. 

    "This is just muscle memory for Nadal. He has the courage to do it in big moments, to trust his game," tennis analyst Darren Cahill said during an ESPN broadcast. 

    Nadal took out Milos Raonic in straight sets in the quarterfinals. He dismissed the charismatic Frenchman Gael Monfils in four sets in the fourth round. 

    Talented teen Alexandr Zverev, the No. 24 seed, pushed Nadal to five sets in the third round. The win against Zverev ended Nadal's three-match losing streak in five-setters at Grand Slams. 

    "It's obviously an important result for me. I lost the last couple of ones, matches in the fifth. So it's important for me to win a match like this, losing two sets to one... Very happy," Nadal told reporters

Who Has the Historical Edge?

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    Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal shake hands after a match at the 2014 Australian Open.
    Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal shake hands after a match at the 2014 Australian Open.Mark Kolbe/Getty Images

    Nadal leads the head-to-head 23-11 and is 3-0 against Federer at the Australian Open. 

    Nadal won his first Australian Open title in 2009 with a five-set victory over Federer. After the loss, a teary-eyed Federer famously spoke of how the loss was "killing me." 

    In 2014, Pete Sampras told Kevin Mitchell of the Guardian about what he calls one of the greatest rivalries in tennis. "It gets tougher as you get older...it's not going to last forever. You have to just sit back and enjoy it. These are two of the greatest players of all time playing in the same decade," Sampras said. 

    They haven't met in a Grand Slam final since the 2011 French Open. The last time they met in an Australian Open final was that 2009 classic. 

    Nadal's lopsided edge over Federer includes 13 wins on clay, a surface the Spaniard dominates. 

    They've had many epic battles, but the matches that stand out include Nadal's 2009 win at the Australian Open (his first hard-court title), the 2007 Wimbledon final, where Federer won 7-6(7), 4-6, 7-6(3), 2-6, 6-2 and the marathon 2008 Wimbledon final in which Nadal prevailed 6-4, 6-4, 6-7(5), 6-7(8), 9-7. That's still considered one of the greatest matches ever played. 

     

     

     

     

     

     

Biggest X-Factors?

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    An exhausted Rafael Nadal after a nearly five-hour match in the semifinals of the 2017 Australian Open.
    An exhausted Rafael Nadal after a nearly five-hour match in the semifinals of the 2017 Australian Open.PAUL CROCK/Getty Images

    Fatigue could be a major factor considering Nadal is coming off a grueling five-set match and will get one less day of rest than Federer.

    Both men have played two five-set matches. But with less recovery time, if the two find themselves in another five-setter, Federer will be fresher. 

    Another factor will be which player can establish his game first. If Federer can dictate play with quick points he ends at the net, it may be more difficult for Nadal to get into a rhythm of the baseline grind he loves so much. 

Federer Will Win If?

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    Roger Federer hits a forehand during the 2017 Australian Open.
    Roger Federer hits a forehand during the 2017 Australian Open.PETER PARKS/Getty Images

    Federer is in his 28th Grand Slam final for a reason. He knows what to do to win big matches. However, at this age and stage in his career, he has to manage energy and emotions to execute his game plan.

    After his win over Wawrinka, Federer told reporters (via Tennis.com), “In the fifth, I just knew I had to find my energy again."

    A high first-serve percentage is key to keeping points short and conserving energy. Federer's kept his first-serve percentage at 59 or above for the entire tournament. He's winning nearly 80 percent of his first-serve points. 

    He must also own the net. Federer is among the best serve-and-volley players in the game. By attacking the net, he can finish points faster and reduce the amount of running he has to do on the court. He has to avoid getting into those long Rafa rallies. 

     

Nadal Will Win If?

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    Rafael Nadal celebrates his semifinal win over Grigor Dimitrov at the2017 Australian Open.
    Rafael Nadal celebrates his semifinal win over Grigor Dimitrov at the2017 Australian Open.PAUL CROCK/Getty Images

    Rarely does a player get a tuneup going into the finals as fitting as the one Nadal got against Dimitrov. Luckily for Nadal, Dimitrov's game is so similar to Federer's that he earned the nickname Baby Fed. 

    Nadal has to stay aggressive and attack Federer's serve the same way he did Dimitrov's. During the semifinals, Nadal was in practically every Dimitrov service game. 

    The Spaniard can't allow Federer to get so comfortable in his service games that he mounts easy points with aces and volleys. 

    Nadal also has to be merciless in attacking Federer's one-handed backhand, keeping the 17-time Grand Slam winner on defense at the baseline. 

Prediction

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    Roger Federer slides to make a play on the ball during a match at the 2017 Australian Open.
    Roger Federer slides to make a play on the ball during a match at the 2017 Australian Open.SAEED KHAN/Getty Images

    Nadal has dominated Federer on clay courts and holds the advantage (9-7) on hard courts. If all things were equal, it would only make sense to pick Nadal to win his 15th Grand Slam title.

    But going into this match, all things are not equal. Federer is more rested, relaxed and recharged than he's been in years. It's the first major, so he does not carry a season's worth of wear and tear on his body into this match.  

    He's withstood the swift Nishikori and the powerful Wawrinka, both in five sets. He will get an exhausted Nadal who had trouble knocking off Dimitrov, a poor man's Federer. 

    In another one for the ages, Federer ends the Grand Slam drought and defeats Nadal in four sets.