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Steve Flink: An old rivalry is ready for renewal

1/22/2014 2:00:00 PM

And so the first major tennis tournament of the 2014 season is moving inexorably toward a potentially exhilarating conclusion. Only four estimable individuals are left in the hunt for the Australian Open men’s singles crown. The first of the semifinal contests will pit Switzerland’s burly and stylish Stan Wawrinka against Tomas Berdych, the big man from the Czech Republic who has now joined the elite band of competitors that have reached at least the semifinals of every Grand Slam event. Wawrinka is hoping to make it to his first major final at 28, and is coming off a spectacular and in many ways improbable five set triumph over three time defending champion Novak Djokovic in the quarterfinals. Djokovic’s 14 match winning streak against the Swiss player ended, as did a personal 28 match winning streak dating back to the final of the 2013 U.S. Open, and another unbeaten streak of 25 consecutive matches at the Australian Open. Remarkably, Djokovic has won 472 career matches while losing only 22 times after taking the opening set over the course of his sterling career. He is an unassailable front runner, the best of his generation, one of the greatest of all time in that department.

To be sure, there will be high intrigue surrounding Berdych and Wawrinka as they battle in the penultimate round. But the match everyone is anticipating with the most vigor will take place on the opposite half of the draw when Rafael Nadal and Roger Federer confront each other in a clash which could be pivotal in determining which of these two all-time greats ultimately claims the most career majors. The redoubtable Federer holds the men’s record with 17 major titles, and Rafael Nadal is in third place, only four behind the Swiss stylist. These two prodigious competitors have faced each other no fewer than 32 times, with Nadal holding a 22-10 lead in the series. At the majors, Nadal has bested Federer eight of ten times, twice upending his keynote rival at the Australian Open, winning six of eight meetings in the finals of Grand Slam events.

They have made history of the highest order with their exploits, going head to head against each other for three straight years at Roland Garros (2006-2008), and replicating that feat on the lawns of Wimbledon through the same years. Time and again, they have delighted us with their contrasting styles, including a memorable five set final won by Nadal in Melbourne five years ago, and a semifinal appointment two years ago when the Spaniard was victorious again. Galleries everywhere never tire of watching the highly charged left-handed topspin and tactical wizard take on the cerebral Swiss competitor. The blend of the two playing styles and personalities is immensely appealing.

Why is their upcoming duel so important? Quite simply, the victor in the Nadal-Federer contest will be a clear favorite in the final against either Berdych or Wawrinka. The historical ramifications are enormous. Federer is determined to reignite his career after a disconcerting 2013 season. In that campaign, he won only one tournament, did not make it to a major final for the first time since 2002, suffered one hard blow after another to his self-esteem. This is a chance for him to make amends. As for Nadal, he could make it ten years in a row that he has garnered at least one major title per season, and he would like to solidify his status as the best tennis player in the world. Furthermore, Nadal had to miss the Australian Open a year ago while he was gone from the game for over seventh months. He has had an awful lot of bad luck in Melbourne over the years, including a heartbreaking five hour, fifty three minute, five set loss to Djokovic in the epic 2012 final. And yet, he did claim the crown in 2009. So a triumph this year could make him only the third man in the history of tennis to win all four majors at least twice, allowing the Spaniard to join Roy Emerson and Rod Laver in that exclusive company. Realizing that goal would clearly be another significant feather in the cap of Nadal.

And yet, it will be a very tall task for the 27-year-old to prevail this year. He has been competing with a badly blistered left hand, requiring some awkward bandaging on his palm. He says it is not painful but it is clearly very uncomfortable. That has made it an arduous task for him to properly grip the racket and have the feeling he would like during his last couple of matches against Kei Nishikori in the round of 16 and Grigor Dimitrov last night. The trainer has worked on adjusting the bandage for Nadal at changeovers in both of those showdowns, but it is clear that his comfort level varies from moment to moment and set to set.

There were some troubling signs for Nadal in his meeting with the gifted Dimitrov, who pushed him exceedingly hard in a hard fought, four set confrontation. Nadal’s anxiety was evident from the outset. He started that battle in a highly vulnerable state, very atypically. Dimitrov, meanwhile, was sharp, confident, and eager to proceed. He aced Nadal twice in the opening game and held commandingly at 15 for 1-0. Nadal commenced the second game with a double fault into the net. At 30-40, he miss-hit a forehand down the line long. Dimitrov was off and running, serving two more aces on his way to 3-0. At 3-1, Dimitrov was pushed to deuce by a determined Nadal, but he held on tenaciously for 4-1. Serving for the set at 5-3, the Bulgarian trailed 0-30, but he aced Nadal on three of the next four points to seal the set.

There was no need for Nadal or his boosters to panic. He opened the second set with greater emotional stability and more inner security, holding at love, then breaking at 30 with a forehand winner directed behind Dimitrov. It was 2-0 for the Spaniard. But in the third game, he lost all confidence in his serve, releasing three double faults—the last at break point down. His brief advantage in the set had evaporated swiftly. Dimitrov was firing away spectacularly, producing two more aces as he held at love for 2-2. Nadal was doing everything in his power to turn this duel into a more comprehensive physical test, but initially he was not getting exactly what he wanted out of this tense skirmish.

The rest of the set stayed on serve. Both players recognized that Dimitrov could not stay with Nadal across five sets, and therefore a two sets to love lead was imperative for him. They went to a tie-break, and Dimitrov double faulted to fall behind 2-0.Nadal found his range at last off the forehand as he extended his lead to 4-1, but after Dimitrov gamely collected the next two points, the Spaniard stepped up his attack and seized control. A surprise serve-and-volley combination took Nadal to 5-3 as he punched a forehand volley into the clear. A gusty inside-out forehand winner driven with full conviction lifted Nadal to 6-3, and then he finished off that sequence immaculately. Chasing down a drop shot from Dimitrov, he seemed certain to go down the line with his backhand pass, but instead steered it crosscourt and out of the reach of his confounded opponent. His disguise on that shot was masterful.

With that flourish, Nadal took the tie-break 7-3, and Dimitrov seemed both deflated and devoid of energy. Nadal moved to 4-2 in the third set. Serving at 4-3, Nadal double faulted into the net at 30-40. Just when it seemed certain that he had control of the match, he had wandered back into unexpected difficulty. Dimitrov, meanwhile, recovered his full enthusiasm, began serving bigger and better, started covering the court with more alacrity. He turned up the volume again on his ground game. With Nadal serving at 5-6, Dimitrov had a set point, but the Spaniard sent his first serve into the body and Dimitrov’s miss-hit return landed in the stands.

They travelled to a tie-break, and Nadal was ahead 5-3 before Dimitrov connected for an inside-out forehand winner. Then, to the chagrin of his followers, going totally against the grain of his normal pattern of play and execution, Nadal inexplicably made consecutive forehand inside-out unforced errors to put himself set point down. Dimitrov went for an inside-in forehand winner off Nadal’s first serve return, but missed it wide. Dimitrov had another set point with Nadal serving at 6-7, but the Spaniard cancelled that one commendably, opening up the court, moving in for an elegant forehand drop volley winner. Nadal advanced to set point with Dimitrov serving at 7-8, and was very fortunate. Nadal’s backhand clipped the net cord and gave Dimitrov all the time he needed to make a winning shot, but he missed narrowly, going wide off the forehand.

Nadal was not going to lose after leading two sets to one, but the professionalism of Dimitrov was impressive. His fatigue showed in his disheveled shotmaking, but he kept on fighting earnestly and admirably.

After six deuces in the second game of the fourth set, Nadal got the break for 2-0 with a sparkling backhand passing shot down the line winner. He dropped only five points in four well played service games and broke the Bulgarian one more time to complete a 3-6, 7-6 (3), 7-6 (7), 6-2 triumph. He had arrived in the semifinals, but at what cost?

As was the case against Nishikori, Nadal needed help from the trainer for adjustments to the bandaging on his palm when he played Dimitrov. He explained later that serving is the most difficult part of the problem, yet his forehand seemed adversely affected as well. For his semifinal against Federer, he needs to find a way for the blister not to be such a burden.

Be that as it may, Federer collided with Murray in a rematch of last years’ Australian Open quarterfinal, which Murray captured in five arresting sets. This time, of course, both Federer and Murray had issues as they approached their showdown. Federer had managed to cast aside Jo-Wilfried Tsonga easily in straight sets, and that gave him a confidence boost. But he knew Murray would test his much more thoroughly from the back of the court and on the return of serve. As for Murray, after back surgery in the fall he had not competed and he was short of match play. His draw—like Federer’s—was a good one.

Murray did not quite know what to expect from himself, nor did Federer. But Federer came out blazing for this encounter. Many observers had raved about his performance against Tsonga, but against Murray he reached a higher level in my view and was given a more complete examination by a player who held an 11-9 career head-to-head lead over him. His court coverage in this match was astounding, as was his defense, as was his serving, as was his ability to attack at all the right times behind the best of approach shots. He would often hit behind Murray and approach up the line off the forehand to set up crisp winning volleys.

For nearly three straight sets, Federer was virtually letter perfect across the board. He came out of the blocks with verve and no hesitation, controlling the tempo of the match entirely, keeping Murray largely at bay with variety and supreme placement on serve. In the first set, Federer put in 19 of 25 first serves and he won 20 of 25 points on his delivery. Murray was not near a break point and Federer broke the British player to move ahead 3-1, never looking back. The second set pattern was essentially the same. Federer broke Murray in the fifth game of that set as Murray made three glaring unforced errors off the forehand.

Serving for the set at 5-4, Federer outdueled Murray in a 27 shot rally to take a 40-30 lead and closed it out confidently from there to take a two set lead. At 5-4 in the third set, Federer served for the match. He had not lost his serve, but suddenly he became very apprehensive, miss-hitting a topspin backhand wide, bungling an inside out forehand. Federer soon trailed 15-40, but he put away an overhead confidently to make it 30-40. And yet, Murray walloped a flat backhand down the line with good depth to elicit an error from Federer, and that made it 5-5.

That set was settled in a tie-break. Federer surged to 5-2, and then served at 6-4, double match point. The two players had a stirring 24 shot rally, but Murray flattened out a forehand crosscourt and coaxed an error from Federer. Serving at 5-6, Murray unleashed an inside out forehand to provoke a miss-hit backhand from Federer. Back on level terms at 6-6, Murray was flowing, driving a forehand down the line for a winner. Federer now found himself set point down, and he sent a forehand long down the middle of the court. Murray had survived from some treacherous corners to salvage the third set.

At the outset of the fourt set, Federer made a couple of glaring mistakes to trail 15-30 on his serve, but Murray missed a nice opening for a forehand passing shot down the line that would have given him double break point. Federer held on from there. The next game lasted ten deuces and Murray was break point down six times. He managed to hold. But Federer had lost none of his rhythm on serve. Although he was no longer as astonishingly quick from the backcourt, he remained resolute in the rallies. Federer broke for 5-3 and then served it out from 0-30 down, closing out the battle with an ace out wide.

Federer had made it to his first semifinal at a major since Melbourne a year ago, looking entirely comfortable with his larger-headed racket, displaying not only improved power but good finesse. Now he and Nadal are about to step out on court to make more history in their eleventh appointment at a major, and their third at the Australian Open. Both men fully realize what is at stake. If Federer manages to topple his old adversary and then prevails in the final over either Wawrinka or Berdych, he would then collect an 18th crown at a major, and Nadal would be five titles behind him in the historical chase. That might be more than the Spaniard could manage.

But if Nadal halts Federer and then maintains his mastery over Berdych and Wawrinka, he would then close to within three major titles of Federer, and would thus have a much better chance to surpass his formidable rival someday. The view here is that Nadal and his team must figure out a way for him to try something different with his bandages for the blisters. He can’t afford to struggle with his game as much as he did against both Nishikori and Dimitrov, and the hand was unmistakably the primary issue for the Spaniard.

Against a revitalized Federer, Nadal must be in full working order, his mind clear, his hand largely free of discomfort, his timing from the baseline precisely where he wants it to be. Federer’s mindset seems almost radically more positive. He is playing better tennis right now than he has for a very long while, and his outlook will be brighter about challenging the Spaniard than has been the case any time recently. But the fact remains that Nadal is a singularly rugged character who has made a habit out of inventing different ways to win. He sets the competitive bar higher than anyone in the sport. The feeling grows that he will show up for the Federer appointment ready to win and prepared to do whatever it takes to get there.

In a best of five set match on any surface, a healthy Nadal always has the edge on Federer, but the fact remains that the 32-year-old Swiss is a shotmaking genius who seems to have found the right blend between unrelenting offense and outstanding defense during this tournament. A lot of observers are attributing Federer’s markedly improved form to the influence of Stefan Edberg in his coaching corner, but I am not buying that. Edberg could eventually be helpful in a number of ways, but right now this is more about Federer and his inner voice. He has recovered an awful lot of his old enthusiasm. But will his outlook transformation be enough to carry him past Nadal and on to the title in Melbourne?

We will have the answer in just a few more days. Meanwhile, it is time to savor the Nadal-Federer rivalry. With Djokovic gone, they deservedly share the spotlight in Australia. They are ready for Round 33 in their illustrious series. They could well stage another classic in the semifinals. Of this much I am certain: they are not going to let us down.
Steve Flink has been reporting on tennis since 1974. He has been a columnist for since 2007. You can purchase Steve's latest book "The Greatest Tennis Matches of All Time" here.