For the past three-and-a-bit weeks, Roger Federer has been talking like a man reborn. Fit, free of aches and pains and armed with a new racquet that, allegedly, allows him to play with the younger and bigger men without fear of being muscled off the court, he has sounded like the Roger of old.
Surely you remember the old Rodge? The bloke who won Grand Slam titles as if it were the easiest thing in the world? It wasn’t, of course. He worked damned hard to make it look that easy. Like a swan gliding across the water towards another trophy, he was paddling like the clappers underneath. Yes, that Rodge. Federer was talking like that bloke we used to know.
Oh, sure, he knew he was not going to be picking up three major trophies a year as he did in his pomp back in the Noughties, but the reborn Rodge was now brimming with the old confidence and, with Stefan Edberg to guide him, he was playing a free-flowing, attacking game, the game we used to marvel at all those years ago. The only problem was that the Roger of old, the younger Rodge, the Rodge without the bad back and the Rodge who was still chasing history and breaking endless records, used to get clumped by Rafa Nadal on a regular basis.
Alas for the mighty Swiss, that part of the story never changes. Just when our hero thought he had it within his grasp to reach the Australian Open final, up steps Rafa and clumps him 7-6(4) 6-3 6-3, the sixth consecutive time he’s beaten Federer in a major.
For the best part of a set, he was in with a chance, albeit a slim one, as he hung on, fended off a handful of break points and made his way to the tiebreak. And then it all went horribly wrong.
The tiebreak went by in a flurry of backhand errors, and all the work Federer had put in during the first hour or so went for nought. Now he was being backed into a corner by Nadal, and just half a dozen games later he was being penned into that corner at a set and a break down. He was not allowed to play the game he wanted to play while, at the other end of the court, Nadal was doing what he always does: he was ruthless and he was relentless.
As the frustration built, Federer got tetchy. He had a word with Jake Garner, the umpire, about Nadal’s grunting. It wasn’t the volume or even the frequency of the grunt; it was the irregularity of it.
“It goes in phases,” Federer explained. “One point he does and he doesn't. That's just what I was complaining about. Had no impact on the outcome of the match, you know, but the level was the same.”
Then there was the time between points. The 20-second rule is a bit swift for the world No.1 and time and again, he goes over the limit as goes through his rituals of towelling down, pushing his hair back over his ears and sorting out his knickers and his shorts. These little tics and twitches are not going to win Rafa a major title, but they might just raise Fed’s blood pressure.
“I think I've played him, what, 33 times,” Federer said. “He's gotten two point penalties over the course of our rivalry. I just think that's not quite happening. We know how much time he used to take. Either you have rules or you don't. If you don't have rules, it's fine. Everybody can do whatever they want to do. I just think it's important to enforce the rules on many levels, whatever it may be.”
But Federer was just having a bit of a moan. He had been beaten – and well beaten – and he knew it. He had tried his best and come up wanting. But every time he has played Nadal at a Grand Slam tournament since 2007, the result has been the same. The old Federer could not beat Nadal; the new Federer cannot beat Nadal. While the Swiss goes away to work out another plan of attack against his old rival, Nadal keeps on winning.
“I think Rafa played well,” Fed said, looking resigned to his fate. “I think he's the way I know him. He's played me this way many times. I'm not sure if I served as good as I could have. But then again, for the first one-and-a-half hours or so, I didn't get broken, I don't think. It wasn't all that bad, you know.
“I was hoping that my forehand was going to work out a bit better, but it didn't, so that let me down a bit. Then it was just the lack of opportunities I created for myself which put the pressure on me too frequently, instead of maybe being able to do that the other way around.
“He did a good job. He didn't make many errors, even though I was trying to hit hard and flat. I tried to play my game. Sometimes I did play very well and sometimes I didn't. But he overall was more consistent. He deserved to win tonight. I mean, he was better. I think Rafa does a good job of neutralising you.”
In other words, Fed did everything he could think of and still Rafa flattened him. ‘Twas ever thus.