MELBOURNE, Australia – For all of Roger Federer’s myriad tennis accomplishments, for the 17 major singles titles and the 302 weeks spent atop the world rankings, there remains one serious issue with his greatest-of-all-time résumé. That issue is his rival, Rafael Nadal of Spain.
As far as rivalries go, theirs is remarkably consistent and has been for almost 10 years. Take Friday. That was Federer-Nadal, match 33, in the semifinal round of the Australian Open.
As has been the case since 2007 whenever the two have squared off in Grand Slam tournaments, Nadal won and Federer lost and the dialogue about their places in history shifted yet again.
The match played out with Nadal in front, with Nadal in control, with Nadal stinging Federer with backhands and slinging Federer around the court. For nearly two weeks, Federer had played like the Swiss standout of old — but Nadal beat that Federer, too, for the most part.
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This installment ended after 2 hours, 24 minutes and the score was 7-6 (7-4), 6-3, 6-3 in favor of Nadal. In 33 meetings, Nadal has 23 victories.
In 11 matches at Grand Slam events, Nadal is 9-2 against Federer.
Nadal would be content with never answering another question about his ability to turn any version of Federer — the invincible Federer, the injured, the best, the greatest — into just another guy. But he took one Friday anyway. His answer was a version of “it is what it is.”
“The real thing is, I played a lot of times against him,” Nadal said. “And a lot of times I played great against him.”
True, on both counts.
His latest triumph advanced Nadal into Sunday’s final, where he will face Swiss player Stanislas Wawrinka. Wawrinka, 28, is playing the best tennis of his life. He eliminated three-time defending champion Novak Djokovic of Serbia earlier this week.
If Nadal wins, he would become the first player in the Open era and the third ever to collect each major-tournament trophy at least twice, which further diminishes the tired argument of Nadal as simply a clay-court specialist. He would match American Pete Sampras with 14 Grand Slam singles titles, good for a share of the second most of all time.
Because Nadal is an annual threat in the French Open on the red clay at Roland Garros, Federer’s 17 major championships would seem, while not certain, well within reach.
Federer remained pragmatic in his news conference. Rather than dwell on Nadal’s continued dominance of their rivalry, Federer focused on the other matches in this tournament, where with new coach Stefan Edberg and a larger racket head, he often looked like the invincible Federer again. Just ask Jo-Wilfried Tsonga or Andy Murray.
It was more difficult for Federer to explain to media why he so struggled with Nadal. He tried at least twice. To play Nadal, he said, was different from playing Djokovic or Murray. To beat Nadal, Federer could not play the way he wanted. He needed to be more aggressive, to hit harder, at sharper angles, to take more risks.
His explanation was more fact than excuse. The 27-year-old Nadal makes Federer, 32, play like someone else.
“I enjoy playing against him,” Federer said, in a comment that all but begged for a lie-detector test.
Nadal had expected aggression from Federer, even welcomed it, because as he noted later, it is hard for anyone to sustain that level of intensity without making more mistakes. Federer’s 50 unforced errors bolstered Nadal’s analysis.