By Pete Bodo, Tennis.com
It looks like all those Roger Federer vs. Rafael Nadal Grand Slam shootouts aren't ready to go to syndication just yet. They're still live, prime-time fare (at least in Australia, no matter how bleary-eyed and sleep-deprived that leaves North American fans), even though the two icons will be doing their shtick in the semifinals of a major for the first time since 2005, when Nadal embarked on his career-long mastery of Federer on red clay with a win at the French Open.
But this is not Roland Garros, and this is not the same confident and tunnel-visioned Nadal to whom Federer bowed on that occasion. And it isn't the same Federer who could balm the wounds of that loss by dominating at all the majors where pristine white socks and shorts aren't ruined by red grit and orange stains.
Nowadays, even these great rivals are a little more like ordinary schmoes on the tour (thanks, partly, to Novak Djokovic). They have to perform due diligence. And more and more often, even when they succeed, Federer or Nadal is apt to leave the court after a match wiping his brow, thinking, "Phew! That was close!"
But despite being over 30, Federer has rewritten that script in recent months. The No. 3 seed has been a rock in Melbourne, extending his unexpected and brilliant fall of last year. Today, he secured his place in the semis with a blow-out win over No. 11 Juan Martin del Potro. The scores neatly describe how the air went out of Delpo's balloon, 6-4, 6-3, 6-2. Good thing it wasn't a best-of-seven; who needs to tack on a 6-1?
Given what happened in No. 2 seed Rafa's subsequent clash with Tomas Berdych, it's hard not to look back upon Federer's performance and detect a message.
Nadal beat No. 7 Berdych, 6-7 (5), 7-6 (6), 6-4, 6-3, a score that also reflects the steadily declining fortunes of the loser. But this was nothing like a routine dismembering. Berdych's fall-off could be explained at least partly by the fact that he more or less blew it when he had a chance to go up two sets to love. It's the kind of thing that can gnaw at a guy, and leave him thinking woulda, coulda, shoulda the rest of the way. It can also be downright inspiring for your opponent.
In the first set, the one Berdych won, Nadal survived four set points before he capitulated. That's called living dangerously against a guy with a gun like Berdych has in that serve. In the second set, Rafa appeared to be rolling at 5-3 when Berdych flared again, and the next thing you know they were in another tiebreaker.
Nadal jumped out to a 4-1 lead in the breaker, only to relinquish it—and face a set point that would have put Berdych up two sets to none. Nadal survived the situation and leveled the match with three straight points. With the set in his pocket, Nadal looked relieved and played with replenished vigor, while Berdych saw his semifinal berth evaporating before his very eyes.
If you're a Nadal fan, you will undoubtedly look at the glass as half full. Rafa fought a good fight against a ball-crusher, dodged a few bullets, played well when he most needed to, and is now—drum roll, please—battle-hardened!
If you're a Federer fan, you're thinking, Berdych is no more of a ball-crusher than Delpo. If that was Roger instead of Berdych out there, Rafa goes down in straights. . .
Count me with the Federer fans on this one. Whatever has been eating at Nadal in recent months is still gnawing away. Analyzing the first set, Nadal told the media, "I was nervous because he was playing well. I thought that I didn't put enough balls in when I was returning. . . I wasn't able to hit the ball [deep]. My movements weren't enough strong, enough fast."
As always, it was an honest and accurate assessment, but it doesn't bode well for his next challenge. And it leaves hanging the question: Why?
If Nadal is lucky, the answer to that question is "form on the day," or perhaps even "Berdych was on fire." Perhaps Nadal will be fast enough and strong enough come Thursday. Maybe he won't be nervous. But the convoluted narrative of this last match, Nadal's roller-coastering emotions, the anxieties that plagued him, and the way the very word "Rafa" is becoming synonymous with "drama" isn't an encouraging sign.
Way back when Nadal and Federer met in that Roland Garros semfinal of '05, it was obvious that the emerging Spanish star was a young man on a mission. At this tournament, though, the guy who appears determined not to be denied is that old dog Federer. As Nadal himself conceded: "[Federer]'s doing well and he's playing fantastic. And he had a fantastic end of the season last year. So he's coming with confidence. It will be a very, very difficult match for me, and I will try."
The last and only other time these two met in Melbourne was 2009, when Nadal snatched the title with a five-set win over Federer in the final. The Swiss star is too cool and professional to throw around crude terms or words like "payback." But that doesn't mean he can't turn it over, savoring it, in his mind.
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