Is it me, or have we been here before? Roger Federer against Rafael Nadal at the business end of a Grand Slam tournament? It may be the semifinals of the Australian Open and the tension may be mounting, but watching those two at work is a bit like settling into a comfy, old armchair – there is nothing quite like it.
This will be the 33rd meeting for the pair, with Rafa leading the rivalry by a staggering 22-10. No matter that the Fed has more major titles than any other player in history – in his pomp, he was vacuuming them up like it was going out of fashion – he still has not beaten Raf on a Grand Slam stage since the 2007 Wimbledon final. Since then, Manacor’s favourite son has walloped Fed in four more Grand Slam finals and one semifinal. He is quite good at Grand Slams, is Raf.
In this new world of celebrity coaches and high-profile advisors, good old Raf likes to keep it simple. Between them, Messrs Edberg, Becker and Lendl have 20 Grand Slam titles; Uncle Toni has always been a tennis coach. Between them, Messrs Edberg, Becker and Lendl earned more than US$67 million in prizemoney alone; Uncle Toni does not take a salary for coaching his nephew (who, incidentally, is always “Rafael” to Toni, never “Rafa”).
Can you imagine how your life would have turned out if you had been trained by your uncle? In my case, I would have ended up as a bagpipe playing geologist (I kid you not – we are a funny family) but, luckily, Raf found a good ’un in Toni and has stuck with him through thick and thin. And times were thin in 2012 when his knees packed up and he wondered whether he would ever be able to get back to the top of the game. Yet, in a Lazarus-like recovery, Nadal swept all before him last year and, coming back to Australia this year as the world No.1, is hoping to complete his second career Grand Slam – every trophy of note won at least twice.
Yet Raf has not been looking that secure here this past couple of weeks. He was not tested at all until the fourth round when Kei Nishikori made him sweat in three tight sets, and then he went on to drop a set to Grigor Dimitrov in the quarterfinals. And throughout it all, he has been struggling with a blister the size of a crater on his left palm.
Those who know about string tensions and grips say that our Raf has changed the grip on his serve in order to give it a bit more oomph. That, apparently, is to compensate for what Raf perceives to be a faster centre court in Melbourne than in years gone by. Whatever the reason, his hand looks like an underdone hamburger, and one sight of it is enough to put anyone off their lunch. Who knows how he can play like that.
The Mighty Fed, meanwhile, is growing back into himself. After spending much of last year looking forlorn as the results refused to materialise and the losses racked up, he is now looking and sounding like the confident, suave, GOAT of old. His new racquet is giving him a bit more power so now he does not fear being blown away by the bigger, younger men, while his back problems seem to have healed. Fit, confident and happy, Fed is looking forward to testing his new-found self-belief against his oldest and toughest rival.
“The racquet's not going to do the running for you,” he said, coolly (he does a good cool) when asked if his racquet was helping him get to balls that his 32-year-old frame was struggling to reach last year. “But I know what you mean.
“I definitely think that's what I used to do so well: the transition game from defence to offence. I definitely sensed that today: I am back physically. I'm explosive out there. I can get to balls. I'm not afraid to go for balls.
“Of course, last year at times you couldn't do it, but it’s important that I can do it now. I'm looking forward to the next match. It was a great game on many levels today against Andy [Murray], not just physically. Also just mentally it was tough. Then I really played some good tennis. I was very happy.”
Well, that’s all right then: the explosive ball-hunter that is Fed is feeling good about himself.
They have played so many times over so many years that we all know what to expect on Friday night. Rafa is not going to change his tactics dramatically just for this match; Fed is not going to stop doing what he has been doing for the past fortnight – we know that and they know that. The big question is: who will win?
Using the sort of highly technical analysis that has earned this column critical acclaim among all those who know absolutely nothing about tennis, I’m backing Fed. Raf may have won the majority of their Grand Slam encounters, but the last time Mrs Fed was expecting, Rodge won the French Open and Wimbledon and was runner-up here and in New York. And Mrs F is expecting again. That could be the clincher. You read it here first.