IT HAS been described as the greatest rivalry in modern tennis, but this is becoming as close as the Christians' contests against the lions. Roger Federer's meeting with Rafael Nadal in the semi-finals of the Australian Open here yesterday was their 10th in Grand Slam tournaments, equalling the Open era record set by Ivan Lendl and John McEnroe, and for the fifth time in a row it was the Spaniard who emerged as the winner.
Nadal's 6-7, 6-2, 7-6, 6-4 victory in a thrilling contest, full of the quality and high drama we have come to expect from two of the finest players in the history of the game, was his eighth over Federer at Grand Slam level and his 18th in their 27 meetings in all tournaments. Federer's only victories over the world No 2 in Grand Slam events came in the Wimbledon finals of 2006 and 2007.
"It's one of the victories that's going to stay in my mind for ever," Nadal said afterwards. "I enjoy playing against him. It's always a special feeling."
Federer had won 24 matches in a row going into the match, his last defeat having been against Novak Djokovic in last year's US Open semi-finals, but when it comes to the big occasions Nadal usually has his number. Of current players who have met the Swiss more than once, Nadal is one of just two - Andy Murray is the other - who have a winning head-to-head record against him.
"I always think he plays a bit better against me than against other players," Federer said after his latest defeat. There have been times when Federer has not been the best of losers, but he invariably gives credit to Nadal when the Spaniard is his conqueror. "I thought Rafa played well from start to finish," he said. "He does a good job getting a lot of balls back and staying in the points and then obviously he's got great passing shots."
Djokovic may have stolen Nadal's thunder last season, beating him in six successive finals and taking his position at the top of the world rankings, but the Spaniard has maintained a phenomenal record in Grand Slam tournaments. Sunday's meeting with Djokovic or Murray will be his fourth consecutive appearance in a Grand Slam final and his seventh in the last eight. In reaching his 15th final Nadal has only six men ahead of him on the all-time list - Federer (23), Lendl (19), Pete Sampras (18), Rod Laver (17), Bjorn Borg (16) and Ken Rosewall (16).
On the day before the tournament started Nadal wondered whether he would even make it to the start line because of an injury to his right knee, which has been heavily strapped throughout the fortnight, but he reported no physical problems after reaching the final. "I was in my room crying because I believed I didn't have the chance to play," he recalled. "Two weeks later I am here, so it is a dream."
In the past Nadal has reaped a rich dividend by targeting Federer's backhand, but this time his tactics were different. He kept pulling his opponent from side to side, played closer to the baseline on his backhand and pressured Federer into a flow of mistakes. More than half of Federer's 63 unforced errors were on his forehand, which has always been regarded as one of the greatest strokes in the game.
Playing in his ninth consecutive Australian Open semi-final, Federer made the best possible start, breaking Nadal in the second game and going on to win the first tie-break 7-5. When he broke again in the opening game of the second set he appeared to be in command, but Nadal, ruthlessly punishing second serves, broke the Swiss in three of his next four service games to level the match.
Federer, who needs one more win to equal Jimmy Connors' record of 233 Grand Slam victories, again made the first break in the third set, but played an erratic tie-break, which proved to be an apt summary of his current status. There are still times when Federer can play as brilliantly as ever, but sustaining that level over a five-set match against one of the leading players is another matter.
Making a succession of ugly errors, Federer went 6-1 down in the tie-break before playing the next four points impeccably. At 6-5, however, he put a forehand into the net as Nadal finally converted his sixth set point.
By now the Spaniard was hitting some stunning passing shots and after Federer missed a good chance to break for 5-3 in the fourth set, putting a forehand wide, the end was swift. Nadal broke in the next game and served out for the match, which he won when Federer hit a forehand long.
When asked who he would like to meet in the final, Nadal had a simple reply. "I prefer the player who's going to play worse that day," he said.
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