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Best of the Roger-Rafa rivalry

MELBOURNE, Australia -- Tennis fans have had no shortage of tantalizing matchups during the Australian Open. Roger Federer confronted young, fast-rising Aussie Bernard Tomic, Federer tangled with Juan Martin del Potro in a repeat of the 2009 U.S. Open final, and Novak Djokovic played Aussie veteran Lleyton Hewitt.

Now comes the best of the bunch: It's Federer versus Rafael Nadal in the semifinals Thursday.

With their 27th meeting looming, we look back at their top five matches.

5. Nadal def. Federer 6-7 (0), 7-6 (5), 6-4, 2-6, 7-6 (5), Rome Masters, 2006

If only they could produce this kind of magic at the French Open. More than five hours of magic, to be more precise, the longest match in this storied Federer-Nadal rivalry.

Nadal was gunning for a 53rd straight win on clay, which would tie him with Guillermo Vilas, while Federer sought a first victory against Nadal on dirt.

Federer would come close.

He led by a break in the fifth set and held two match points on Nadal's serve in the 12th game; both times he erred on forehands. Nadal took advantage and edged the Swiss, who approached the net a staggering 84 times.

"I should have won," Federer said afterward. "He caught me right at the finish line."

Makes you wish they still played best-of-five sets in these Masters Series finals.

4. Nadal def. Federer 7-5, 7-6 (3), 5-7, 6-1, French Open, 2011

It wasn't a match point, but a Federer miss cost him in last year's French Open final -- his finest opportunity to upend a vulnerable Nadal at Roland Garros.

Holding a 5-2 lead in the first set, Federer opted for a drop shot with Nadal stranded. Good call, but the ball landed narrowly wide.

A game-changer.

"I definitely thought that I got maybe a touch unlucky there, and he got a touch lucky," Federer said after the match.

Nadal didn't run away with the proceedings thereafter, however. Far from it. He couldn't serve out the second set, eventually needing a tiebreaker.

Then in the third, he strangely wasted a 4-2 lead. Federer upped the ante, ironically helped by the drop shot.

Nadal had to fend off three consecutive break points to begin the fourth as the rollercoaster ride continued.

In the end, Nadal collected his sixth French Open title.

3. Federer def. Nadal 7-6 (7), 4-6, 7-6 (3), 2-6, 6-2, Wimbledon, 2007

A charging Nadal was gunning for his first Wimbledon title, and first Grand Slam title outside Paris.

Not just yet.

The turning point came when Federer survived four break points in the fifth set; a dispirited Nadal was broken at 2-3 and didn't win another game.

Federer walked away from SW19 as the champion for the fifth straight year, matching Bjorn Borg's feat.

"It was such a close match," a relieved Federer said. "I told Rafa at the net he deserved it as well. I'm the lucky one today."

The brawny Nadal broke down afterward, he later revealed.

"When I arrived to the locker room, I sat down, and as it's normal after losing the final of the tournament that you dream of winning, against the No. 1 and with lots of chances, I started to cry of anger, of sadness," he said.

2. Nadal def. Federer 7-5, 3-6, 7-6 (3), 3-6, 6-2, Australian Open, 2009

More tears, and this time Federer was the one doing the crying.

He had to be consoled by Nadal during his postmatch speech on court; it was Federer's fifth straight loss to the lefty.

"God, it's killing me," Federer uttered in a now-famous line (at least in the tennis world) with Rod Laver in attendance.

This was the tussle in which Nadal exhibited his superior powers of recovery. Only two days earlier, he spent more than five hours on court in a draining semifinal against Fernando Verdasco.

"I was pretty concerned, not being sure whether I could be at my best," Nadal said. "It's tough feeling that way when it's your first final in Australia and you're not sure you're going to be 100 percent. But in the end, everything worked out well for me."

Federer won one more point overall than Nadal but was inefficient on break points, going 6-for-19.

1. Nadal def. Federer 6-4, 6-4, 6-7 (5), 6-7 (8), 9-7, Wimbledon, 2008

Having come close to dethroning Federer at Wimbledon a year before, Nadal was intent on going one better. He got there. And how.

Pundits have called it the greatest tennis match of all time, and not many would disagree.

Rain delayed the start and two more interruptions followed, with fading light then becoming an issue. But the tennis, not Mother Nature, had the last word.

In a tiebreaker of epic proportions -- in the fourth set -- Nadal, standing several yards behind the baseline, uncorked a wonderful forehand pass down the line. He was, though, outdone by Federer, who saved a match point with a gutsy backhand pass down the line.

Nadal displayed his mental toughness in the fifth. Instead of cracking, he held firm, despite serving second.

Four hours, 48 minutes of theatre came to a conclusion when Federer netted a forehand. Out went his 65-match winning streak on grass.

"Probably my hardest loss by far," Federer said.

Thursday's affair in Melbourne promises to be a classic, too.


London-based Ravi Ubha covers soccer and tennis for ESPN.com. You can follow him on Twitter.