After all Roger Federer has accomplished – 17 Grand Slam titles, 302 weeks at No. 1, world-wide renown as a great sportsman – he is not just a player for his fervent fans, he’s an obsession.
They parse his every word looking for a sign, a hint, a hope of what the future holds for the man they believe is the greatest of all time (GOAT).
On Wednesday, after his 6-3 6-4 6-7(6) 6-3 quarterfinal win over Andy Murray, there were conflicting messages in his post-match media conference, at least for the obsessed.
“It’s nice to be back in the semis and defend my (ranking) points from last year,” he said.
Did that mean, “mission accomplished, I did what I’d hoped to do at this year’s Australian Open?”
Then there was, “I still love competition, still maybe there’s something big around the corner.”
Was that code for, “stay tuned, No. 18 Grand Slam coming in Sunday night’s final?”
For Federer-philes, this has been a special month. He was feted like a conquering hero in Brisbane where he did everything but win the title, brought the universally-admired Stefan Edberg into his camp and he staged the “Roger and Friends” exhibition in Rod Laver Arena the week before the 2014 Aussie Open began.
Was this all a prelude to the piece de resistance – a fifth Australian Open title?
As has so often been the case, on Friday night it’s the muscular, whiplash left arm of Rafael Nadal that awaits on the other side of the net to thwart him. The 27-year-old Spaniard has been the ultimate obstacle for the great Swiss – leading their overall head-to-head 22-10, as well as 7-2 on outdoor hard courts like the Plexicushion at Rod Laver Arena and 5-0 in their most recent matches at Grand Slam events dating back to 2007.
Nadal has looked vulnerable in his last two matches – with Kei Nishikori pushing him mightily in a 7-6(3) 7-5 7-6(3) victory in the fourth round. On Wednesday, the outrageously-talented Grigor Dimitrov was a regulation forehand from leading two sets to one in their quarterfinal before falling 3-6 7-6(3) 7-6(7) 6-2.
Nadal has an enormous blister on his left hand and the tape across his palm is a problem. “With the tape, I feel I can lose the racquet when I’m serving,” he said. “That’s a terrible feeling for the serve, because then you are not able to accelerate the right movement. You lose a bit of the coordination. That’s a big deal.”
It might be something Federer can exploit, but playing at night is on the plus side for Nadal – conditions are slower, and he played his best match of the tournament so far at night against Gael Monfils.
“I’m back physically,” an upbeat Federer proclaimed after beating Murray. “I’m explosive out there. I can get to balls. I’m not afraid to go for balls.”
Federer-Nadal is a rivalry for the history books. If it were a game of tic-tac-toe, Federer would be going for the block to stop Nadal from a chance at getting to 14 Grand Slam titles, within three of his record total, and with Nadal’s Roland Garros domain up next.
It’s also, for dreaming-big Federer fans, a chance to play Sunday for an 18th Grand Slam title – something that would neatly align him in the sports galaxy with golfing great Jack Nicklaus and his record 18 major wins.
TOM’S INTREPID TIP
Nadal vs Federer
Federer needs to be in peak form and confidence against Nadal. His little flinch – not converting two match points in the third set against Murray on Wednesday night – could sow tiny seeds of doubt. That could be costly against a more redoubtable opponent like the ruthless Rafa. Nadal in four.