SEVEN years after they first met in a Grand Slam event, Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal will tomorrow renew the greatest rivalry in modern tennis. Since that first confrontation, when Nadal won in the last four of the French Open, the 30-year-old Swiss and the 25-year-old Spaniard have only ever met in the finals of Grand Slam tournaments, but their meeting here will come at the semi-final stage of the Australian Open.
Having been paired in the same half of the draw in a Grand Slam tournament for the first time since 2005 at Roland Garros, there was an inevitability about the paths of the two men crossing here. Their 10th meeting at Grand Slam level equals the record for the Open era, held by Ivan Lendl and John McEnroe.
Both men have been in outstanding form. The only set either player has dropped so far came in Nadal's quarter-final against Tomas Berdych last night. The world No 2 came from behind to win an intensely physical contest 6-7, 7-6, 6-4, 6-3 after more than four and a quarter hours.
Federer, who has not lost since last year's US Open, won his 24th match in a row with a masterful display against Juan Martin del Potro in their first meeting in a Grand Slam tournament since the Argentine beat the Swiss in the final of the US Open three years ago.
Flying around the court with a speed and fluidity that defied his advancing years, Federer won 6-4, 6-3, 6-2 in just under two hours. "I knew the danger of playing Juan Martin, so potentially it was my big test," the four-times Australian Open champion said afterwards.
Federer's victory marked yet another set of milestones. The world No 3 was playing in his 1,000th match at tour level, a landmark previously reached in the Open era only by Jimmy Connors, Lendl, Guillermo Vilas, McEnroe, Andre Agassi, Stefan Edberg and Ilie Nastase. He is through to his 30th Grand Slam semi-final, one behind the record held by Connors, and his ninth consecutive semi-final here, which extends his own record. His tally of 232 Grand Slam victories is just one behind Connors' Open era record.
Nadal, who lost in the quarter-finals here in 2010 and 2011, had to work hard to beat Berdych, who won the first-set tie-break after Nadal had saved four set points when serving at 5-6. With the 26-year-old Czech hitting the ball with enormous power, Nadal had to be at his defensive best to keep his opponent at bay. One astonishing 29-shot rally in that last game of the opening set saw Nadal repeatedly return Berdych's thunderbolts before hitting a cross-court winner, to the delight of the crowd.
Berdych will be haunted by the volley he missed when he had a point in the second tie-break for a two-set lead. He responded well to go 2-0 up at the start of the third set, but thereafter Nadal took control. By the end, the Spaniard was launching into his forehands with all his old vigour, the heavier racket he is using here enabling him to strike the ball flatter and harder than he has of late.
"I'm very happy with everything," Nadal said afterwards. "Making the semi-finals is a fantastic result for me. To start the season with semi-finals in the first big tournament of the season is very good news. My level is very positive, much, much better than the end of last season. The character on court, the way to win the points, everything was much more positive."
He added: "The fourth set was one of my best levels on this kind of surface. I was returning inside the court, making a lot of winners with the first ball, on the return and hitting my serve and then a winner."
Nadal and Federer have met 26 times in total. Nadal has won on 17 occasions, but if you take the Spaniard's beloved clay out of the equation, Federer has won seven of their 12 meetings on quicker surfaces. Nevertheless, it was Nadal who won their only previous meeting here - where the hard courts are appreciably slower than elsewhere - in the 2009 final.
The two quarter-finals in the other half of the draw were due to take place today. Andy Murray was scheduled to play Kei Nishikori in the afternoon match, with Novak Djokovic set to take on David Ferrer later in the day.
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