Unexpected chapter of Federer-Nadal rivalry one to savour

By Christopher Devine 28 January 2017 238
Unexpected chapter of Federer-Nadal rivalry one to savour

Cancel any other plans you may have had for Sunday. The contest so many had yearned for is actually happening.

More than five and a half years since they last met in a grand slam final, Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal will go head-to-head on Sunday with the Australian Open title at stake.

Matches between these two modern-day greats have always been eagerly anticipated, given their immense pedigree and raft of classic past meetings, but both players have acknowledged the extra-special nature of their upcoming clash.

Last October, Federer helped his friend and rival open the Rafa Nadal Academy in Mallorca, at a time when both players were sidelined by injuries and seemingly facing an uphill battle to recapture past glories. 

After edging out Grigor Dimitrov in an epic semi-final on Friday, Nadal said: "In that moment, for sure, we never thought that we had the chance to be, again, in a final, and especially the first of the year.

"It's great that we are in a moment like this again."

Even as recently as a fortnight ago, the prospect of Federer and Nadal contesting the men's singles final on Rod Laver Arena appeared slim at best.

Six-time champion Novak Djokovic and world number one Andy Murray had met in the last two Australian Open deciders, the Serbian prevailing on each occasion, and the duo's dominance in 2016 meant a repeat showdown was widely anticipated.

In contrast to the top two in the ATP rankings, Federer and Nadal were each hampered by fitness issues last year, the Swiss enduring a particularly lengthy lay-off that resulted in him receiving the unfamiliar seeding of 17th for this tournament.

Nadal is ninth in the rankings, yet he and Federer have looked a class apart at Melbourne Park and a dream final now awaits.

Ever since Djokovic and Murray suffered shock first-week exits, the idea of Federer and Nadal setting up a ninth meeting in a slam final prompted growing excitement.

Such a scenario was far from inevitable, particularly with the likes of world number three Milos Raonic and US Open champion Stan Wawrinka - the only men other than Djokovic and Murray to reach slam finals in 2016 - also hoping to capitalise.

Yet Raonic was clinically brushed aside by Nadal on Wednesday and the seemingly ageless Federer overcame a gutsy fightback to deny Wawrinka in thrilling fashion 24 hours later and claim his second five-set win of the tournament - an outstanding effort from a player not long back from six months on the sidelines.

Federer's thrilling victory over his compatriot meant only Dimitrov stood in the way of a glorious rivalry being renewed. On Friday, the in-form Bulgarian produced a magnificent display - full of heart, nerve and, above all, an abundance of skill - to push Nadal all the way.

It was the Spaniard who prevailed, however, and he will now hope to repeat his 2009 Australian Open final victory over Federer - a memorable triumph that saw the vanquished man reduced to tears.

Since that meeting eight years ago, Federer and Nadal have met only once with one of their sport's major prizes up for grabs - the 'King of Clay' triumphing at Roland Garros in 2011 to improve his head-to-head record in slam finals against Federer to 6-2.

That statistic is reflective of Federer's general struggles against Nadal - the 35-year-old has lost 23 of their 34 career meetings - including their last six in slams. In addition, his record against Nadal at Melbourne Park consists of no wins and three defeats.

Should Federer buck that trend on Sunday to claim a fifth Australian Open title, it would arguably represent the greatest triumph of his illustrious career. And the same argument could also be made for Nadal, who has the incentive of closing to within two titles of Federer's record haul in slams.

Yet regardless of the outcome, one thing is sure. This is a match not to be missed.

"Of course, everyone is going to see that final now, including me," said a gracious Dimitrov following his painful semi-final exit at the hands of Nadal.

"I'm going to watch it for sure. It's great for the sport."

Asked who he expects to win, Dimitrov replied: "I just know that two of the greatest players of tennis are going to square off on Sunday, and it's going to be a freakin' amazing match."

What more could you ask for?

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Christopher Devine