Federer rediscovers A-game
A reason Rafa rules this rivalry
Before we begin, perhaps we should just pause for a moment to give thanks that we have this gift of a semifinal, and that it promises to be compelling (please) and competitive.
Moving along, yes, Rafa has dominated this rivalry 22-10, but though my head says he is the favorite, my heart says Fed. But it's not a purely emotional decision.
Have you seen Federer here? He is moving like the old Rog, his groundstrokes are as smooth as butter, but now with this new Stefan Edberg-inspired, serve-and-volley aggressiveness, he is not just fun to watch but surprisingly effective.
OK, yes, Nadal has even had the advantage on outdoor hard courts, 7-2 against Federer, including their five-set 2009 Australian Open final classic and a four-set 2012 semi. But have you seen Federer? Oh right, I asked that. He feels better than ever after his back soreness of last year and seems happier and more confident as well.
Nadal is Nadal, granted, but he has been dealing with that nasty patch of raw skin on his racket hand and said it is truly affecting his serve. Truly. Fed, meanwhile, dominated Jo-Wilfried Tsonga in straight sets in the fourth round and looked equally (relatively) error-free against Andy Murray in the quarters.
And Fed is tough, so tough, leading the tournament in break points saved (9-of-11 for 82 percent). And did I say aggressive, as he ranks fifth overall in first-service points won at 83 percent (Nadal is tied for 30th at 76 percent). Federer is tied for ninth in total winners (23 percent) while Nadal is -- hmm -- tied for 47th (17 percent).
Fine, so I just scanned the stats for categories in which Roger leads. Back to real stuff, Rafa had some problems with the all-court game of the guy they call "Baby Fed," Grigor Dimitrov (he just loves when you call him that, by the way), so there's that.
There's also just something about Federer, who seems as though he is enjoying the game more than ever, and doesn't feel even a whit of pressure. And why should he? He's the king, and Friday, he will be a semifinal winner.
I get it, Missy. Roger Federer is playing stellar tennis, perhaps his best since winning Wimbledon more than a year ago. And he'll certainly be the sentimental favorite when these longtime rivals meet for the 33rd time. And why shouldn't he be? At 32 years old, we were pretty much counting on him as a staple on the Champions Tour (for the seniors) next season.
And then something happened. Federer reminded us we're really not that savvy when it comes to evaluating players. He has been dominant in reaching the Australian Open semifinals. As a matter of fact, the sixth-seeded Swiss has dropped but one set through five rounds. And this includes emphatic wins over Jo-Wilfried Tsonga and Andy Murray in his past two matches. But now the all-time Slam King has a problem. They call him Rafa.
To the chalkboard we go. Rafael Nadal has won more than twice as many matches (22-10) as Federer in their head-to-head encounters. Nadal has dominated on every surface, every event, every continent. And the reality is that we can parse Federer's newfound strategy and fresh frame of mind as much as we want, but it doesn't account for Nadal's infallible game plan, which is his forehand to Federer's backhand. There's nothing short of borrowing Stanislas Wawrinka's one-hander that Federer can do about it. Plain and simple.
Now perhaps Nadal's blister will play a role. Nadal's serve speed dropped by an average of 11 mph from the fourth round to the quarters (115-104). The question isn't so much speed as it will be height. If Nadal can still generate the topspin he does, Federer is already in a vulnerable position, irrespective of speed. This goes for Nadal's forehands, too.
Look, some players just don't match up well with others. This isn't to detract from Federer's journey. No one is happier to see him back in the fold more than I, but all great things eventually come to an end.
Except Rafa's run toward another title, that is.