Roger and Rafa are at it again

CINCINNATI -- Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal have played each other so often -- 30 times, to be exact -- that it wouldn't be particularly remarkable if yet another match between them was viewed with a jaded, we've-seen-it-all-before attitude.

But that never happens. When it becomes known that Federer and Nadal are slated to play, there's always an immediate buzz, a palpable excitement in the air.

And that's just the way it was at the Western & Southern Open on Thursday when both players -- already legends of the game -- won round-of-16 matches to set up their 31st career meeting in Friday's quarterfinal.

The fifth-seeded Federer looked close to exiting after falling behind 6-1, 4-2 in his outing against Tommy Haas. Somehow, he managed to dig out of that hole and come away a 1-6, 7-5, 6-3 winner.

"I was just hanging on, and I'm happy I did because it paid off," Federer said. "I was very happy I was able to turn a match around like this."

In the evening, the fourth-seeded Nadal didn't look as comfortable as he would've liked against Grigor Dimitrov, but he pulled out a 6-2, 5-7, 6-2 win to secure another bout against Federer. For Nadal, the match was a perfect dress rehearsal for facing Federer, because Dimitrov plays a similar brand of tennis to the Swiss sensation.

"I played a few bad games in a row so I lost the set," said the 27-year-old Nadal. "The positive thing is I was ready to accept that situation. I think I played a good third set in general."

What makes the Roger-Rafa rivalry so amazing is that all their matches are enticing for fans -- tennis entertainment at its best. Yet, the outcomes of their battles have been heavily weighted in Nadal's favor -- he's won 20 of 30 times. On hard courts, which is the surface in Cincinnati, their head-to-head is a more straightforward 6-6 split.

This season they've already mixed it up twice. Both of those encounters went to Nadal in straight sets -- the Indian Wells quarterfinal, which was the last time they played on hard courts, and the Rome final.

In all, they've taken their road show to 10 different countries since their first encounter at the 2004 Miami Masters, a match that jump-started Nadal's winning edge over Federer. In their past encounters, the player who won the first set won 23 of their 30 matches and has won 17 of the past 19 they have played.

This next installment in their rivalry, now just hours away, has become a topic of intense debate in Cincinnati -- it's being discussed, dissected and detailed. Even Nadal spoke of its importance.

"Playing against Roger is a special feeling," he said, smiling. "We have a great history behind us in our confrontations, so it's not another quarterfinals. It's a special one because you're playing against a very special player. Our matches were very special, always."

As for the pundits weighing in on the match, it appears that Nadal, who won last week's Montreal title, will head into the encounter with a clear advantage. And it's a hard assessment to argue against.

Even Federer couldn't shy away from acknowledging that Nadal's been incredible this year. How could you not praise someone's ability to come back in February from an eight-month injury layoff to win eight titles, including his eighth French Open trophy?

"The year for him has been unbelievable, how he came back and how successful he's played, almost always achieving finals," Federer said. "So it's a great season for him. He's coming into this tournament clearly very confident. If I play him tomorrow, it's clearly going to be a difficult match because he comes in with a lot of confidence again."

Of late, the 32-year-old Federer's fallen short of his reputation as a model of Swiss precision. He can boast ownership of a record 17 Grand Slam titles, but he hasn't won a major since Wimbledon last year. Instead of making a deep run at defending his Wimbledon crown this year, Federer suffered a dismaying second-round defeat to 116th-ranked Sergiy Stakhovsky.

That defeat sent Federer scrambling for answers. Recently, he has experimented with switching to a racket with a larger head, which in theory would be more forgiving and provide him with more power, but less control. He's now shelved that plan until after the U.S. Open.

In his two matches here -- he beat Philipp Kohlschreiber 6-3, 7-6 (3) earlier in the week before playing Haas -- he's looked far from convincing. Nevertheless, while Federer acknowledges he's been struggling, he remains ever the optimist, and refused to make much of that fact.

"(My) career is long, over 1,000-some matches," Federer said. "I've doubted myself in the past. I know where I have to go, so at least I know where I am, and I know what I need to work on ... I'm a strong believer that I am on the right path right now, and I just need to make sure that mentally I stay cool about it."

He will need to be very cool if he's going to have any chance against Nadal. Still, it's worth noting that Federer's won the Cincinnati title five times in the past, while Nadal's best result here was two semifinal showings.

And while many are predicting another Nadal victory on Friday, the Spaniard was way too smart -- and respectful -- to dismiss someone of Federer's stature so lightly.

"Tomorrow will be another match against a great player, probably the best in history, and if I am not 100 percent ready to fight every ball and to make the right decisions in the right moments, I will not have chances to win," Nadal said.