Fed and Rafa Play for History Down Under

23 Jan

When Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal get together Friday evening in their semi-final match-up at the Australian Open, far more will be on the line than a trip to Sunday’s final. A lot of attention has been paid to the amazing run of Swiss second-best Stanislas Wawrinka, whose thrilling five-set quarterfinal victory over Novak Djokovic has the tennis world swooning. But, in the broader context of tennis history, the major question is still all about Roger and Rafa.

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Considered by many the greatest player of all time, Federer is clinging to his record of 17 major championship titles, the stake that, more than any other, bolsters his claim to tennis primacy. Rafa, meanwhile, is coming off a monster year, in which he bounced back from a knee injury that sidelined him from July 2012 until February 2013, won two major championships and an astonishing ten tournament titles, and retook the number one ranking from Djokovic, his Serbian nemesis. Snagging the Aussie crown would springboard Rafa into the French Open, a tournament he has captured eight times before, more wins than any other man at a single major tournament.  Reeling off victories in both Australia and Paris would propel Nadal to 15 major titles, only two shy of Federer, with half of the season remaining, including stops at Wimbledon and the U.S. Open, both of which Rafa has won twice before, including his dominating performance at Flushing Meadows last summer. At that point, the Spaniard might just decide to get the whole thing over with in 2014, and tie Federer’s mark by pulling off the calendar year grand slam for the first time since Rod Laver did it back in 1967.

Federer basically has two ways to stop Rafa from wrestling away his major record – and, by extension, obviating the most compelling plank in the Fed-is-greatest-ever construction. On one hand, he can beat Rafa directly in majors, to prevent him (Rafa) from adding to his (Rafa’s) major title haul. On the other, Fed can add a notch or two to his own collection of major championships, thereby extending his lead over the bull from Manorca. On Friday, Federer has a chance to do the former and take a big step toward doing the latter, which is exactly what makes this match so exciting and, in terms of tennis history, so significant. Beating Rafa tomorrow under the lights would not only silence (at least, temporarily) Fed skeptics who say the Swiss can no longer get it done against the world’s best players. It would also blunt Rafa’s momentum and make the prospect of surpassing Federer’s major record seem more daunting. If Fed went on to capture the title in Melbourne, it might make passing him seem down right unfeasible.

I’m under no illusion that losing to Roger would somehow diminish Nadal’s motivation heading into the rest of the season. The Spaniard’s intensity is as ceaseless as it is maniacal. And losing to one of his major rivals would only fuel Rafa’s fire to beat the stuffing out of him next time round.

Nor am I convinced that Nadal is even focused on matching Federer’s record. One of the most impressive things about Rafa is that he seems utterly nonplussed by the weight of history. He just brings it every time he hits the court. Period. Whether it’s the finals of Wimbledon or the first round in Viña Del Mar, Rafa wants to win every single point and gives his opponents absolutely no charity. Nadal claims that he doesn’t have his eye on history and simply wants to go out there and play his very best. This is usually a throwaway line one hears from top-tier athletes trying to deflect attention from some tremendous accolade they’re on the cusp of achieving. Somehow, in the case of Rafa, I sort of believe it.

But, whether Rafa admits it or not, Friday’s semi has enormous significance in terms of his quest for tennis history, however unintentional it may be. As sports fans, we’re excited about this match because we love the idea of the older champion rekindling the magic one more time when their place in history is on the line.

Given his performance thus far Down Under, the Swiss seems up to the challenge.

Federer’s had a good tournament. He’s playing relaxed, confident tennis, displaying the calculated aggression that allowed him to hit his stride in the closing stages of last season. He’s also had an entire off-season to get comfortable with a larger racquet frame that has lent added power and more room for error to his high-risk game. New coach Stefan Edberg has Fed believing he can win more majors and climb back to the top of the men’s game.

“I am back physically,” Federer said after dismissing world number four Andy Murray in a surprisingly routine quarterfinal victory. “I’m explosive out there. I can get to balls. I’m not afraid to go for balls. Last year at times [I] couldn’t do it, but what’s important is that I can do it now. I’m looking forward to the next match.”

An explosive, motivated, fearless Federer?

Look out.

With tennis immortality at stake in Melbourne, the old maestro may just have one more trick up his leave.

(PS – In case you were concerned about a repeat of NBC’s decision last spring not to air Rafa and Djokovic’s French Open semi-final (i.e., the most important and hotly-contested match of the year), don’t worry: This time, the grown-ups at ESPN are in charge.)

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