But Federer versus Nadal for the Australian Open title on Sunday certainly feels like the match that the sport wanted, maybe even needed, and the wider world might agree that a revival performance of a classic is rather reassuring in these uncertain times.
Federer and Nadal have been respectful rivals, with only the occasional breaks in decorum, for more than a decade. Although they are five years apart in age — Federer is 35, Nadal 30 — they are together for good in our collective mind’s eye and their own eyes, too, after their run of classic matches at Wimbledon, the Australian Open and elsewhere in the 2000s.
“It is special to play with Roger in a final of a Grand Slam, I cannot lie,” Nadal said after winning a nearly five-hour five-set semifinal over Grigor Dimitrov on Friday, 6-3, 5-7, 7-6 (5), 6-7 (4), 6-4. “It’s great. It’s exciting for me, and for both of us, that we’re still there and we’re still fighting for important events.”
The prospect of a Nadal-Federer revival in a major final seemed unlikely with Andy Murray and Novak Djokovic sharing the spoils at the top of the men’s game in 2016. It seemed even more unlikely when Federer traveled to Majorca, in Spain, for the opening of Nadal’s tennis academy on Oct. 19, with both men taking lengthy timeouts from tennis because of injuries.
“I told him I wish we could do a charity match or something, but I was on one leg and he had the wrist injury,” Federer said. “We were playing some mini-tennis with some juniors, and we’re like, ‘That’s the best we can do right now.’”
Three months later, they have done better in Melbourne, showing remarkable form and resolve and going the distance against younger men. Federer had to win five-setters against No. 5 seed Kei Nishikori and No. 4 seed Stan Wawrinka. In the semifinal against Wawrinka, his friend and former Olympic doubles partner, Federer fought off break points early in the fifth set that could have allowed Wawrinka to take control of the match for good.
“I thought in the beginning of the fifth that perhaps the wall had appeared in front of me, and that it was the end of this nice story,” Federer said.
Nadal had to fight off two break points of his own in the fifth set before holding off Dimitrov, a 25-year-old underachiever who looks ready to achieve plenty from here.
“First of all, I hope to recover well,” said Nadal, who will have one fewer day of rest before the final than Federer.
Nadal has done it before in Melbourne in the same situation. In 2009, he played an even lengthier five-set semifinal with his compatriot Fernando Verdasco that left him unable to fall asleep until 5 a.m. Even with less rest, he beat Federer in a five-set final that left Federer in tears during the awards ceremony.
“God, it’s killing me,” he said with his voice cracking as he backed away from the microphone.
Rod Laver Arena has been a sweet and sour place for both men. Federer has been beaten there by Nadal in an Australian Open final and by Djokovic three times in the semifinals. He also lost to Lleyton Hewitt during a Davis Cup semifinal in 2003 between Switzerland and Australia.
Nadal has experienced major setbacks in the arena, too, none more memorable than his loss to Djokovic in the 2012 final in a brutal test that lasted nearly six hours and left both men unable to stand at the trophy ceremony.
But this year, neither Nadal nor Federer had to deal with Djokovic or Murray, both of whom were upset in the first week of the tournament. The older guard has capitalized and retaken center stage.
Either Federer will extend his lead in career Grand Slam singles titles with his 18th, or Nadal will narrow the gap with Federer to just two by winning his 15th.
Still, the historical implications are deeply subsidiary to the anticipation over the match itself. The two men have not played in a Grand Slam final since the 2011 French Open. Nadal is 23-11 against Federer, including a 3-0 record at the Australian Open, where they last met in the 2014 semifinals.
Asked if all that gave him an edge, Nadal — never one to overestimate his chances in public — said no.
“Was a long time ago,” he said. “Is a different match, different moment, for both of us. I think this match is completely different than what happened before. Is special. We have not been there in that situation for a while, so that makes the match different.”
Federer actually won their most recent match, in 2015, which was indoors on a hardcourt in the final of the tour event in Basel, Federer’s hometown in Switzerland.
But he had lost five straight to Nadal before that and has not beaten him in a Grand Slam tournament since the Wimbledon final in 2007.
The court in Laver Arena is playing quicker than usual, but it is still not quite a net rusher’s or big server’s paradise. Extended rallies were still the rule when Nadal and Dimitrov faced off, but even if the speed increase is marginal, it could help Federer get more penetration on his shots against Nadal’s redoubtable defenses.
The concern for Federer is that Nadal had the ideal warm-up partner in Dimitrov, who plays a similar all-court game to Federer and also has a flashy one-handed backhand.
Dimitrov hit it beautifully under pressure on Friday night, particularly down the line, and yet he still lost. Federer’s backhand, which has generally looked strong, even off deep balls to the corners, has long tended to break down under the relentless pressure of the left-handed Nadal’s whipping forehand.
All that said, this certainly looks like a more neutral venue in tactical terms than a clay court or a slow hardcourt, which would heavily favor Nadal.
“Predicting the outcome is impossible,” Wawrinka said. “Roger has two full days to recover. I think it will be a monster match.”
Their history suggests otherwise. The Nadal-Federer matchup has fired a few blanks through the years. Federer’s rivalry with Djokovic, which the Serb leads by 23-22, has been a more reliable generator of suspense (and edge). So has Nadal versus Djokovic, the most prolific rivalry of the men’s Open era, which Djokovic leads, 26-23.
But Federer versus Nadal can still outgenerate them all in terms of buzz and nostalgia. Sunday should be no exception.
“Both of us never thought we’d be here again in the final of Australia, so we both feel very happy,” Nadal said through the fatigue on Friday night as he addressed the crowd. “I hope you are happy, too.”
|Spain’s Rafael Nadal beat Bulgaria’s Grigor Dimitrov in five sets on Friday. “It is special to play with Roger in the final of a Grand Slam,” Nadal said. Credit Peter Parks/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images|
Australian Open 2017: Rafael Nadal relishes Roger Federer reunion
World number nine Rafael Nadal says his rivalry with Roger Federer transcends tennis as they prepare to meet in Sunday's Australian Open final.
Nadal and Federer both endured five-set matches in their semi-finals.
The Spaniard, 30, has won 23 of his 34 meetings with the 35-year-old Swiss, including an unforgettable victory in the 2008 Wimbledon final.
"People from outside our world talk about this, and that's good for our sport," said Nadal.
"The combination of two styles makes the matches really special," he added.
The head-to-head history also favours Nadal by six wins to two in Grand Slam finals and three to zero at the Australian Open. But the 14-time Major winner says that Sunday's final meeting will take their rivalry into new territory.
"That was a long time ago. It is a different match, a different moment for both of us. This match is completely different than what happened before," Nadal added.
"I really don't think about what happened in the past. I think the player who plays better is going to be the winner."
Comebacks to the future
Both Nadal and Federer ended their 2016 seasons early after suffering injuries.
A knee problem kept Federer out of action in the wake of his Wimbledon semi-final defeat by Milos Raonic, while Nadal was sidelined by a wrist injury that forced his withdrawal from the French Open.
Federer travelled to Nadal's home town of Manacor in Majorca for the opening of his rival's tennis academy in October.
"That was amazing. I have said hundreds of time, but I can't stop saying thanks because it was very emotional for everybody," recalled Nadal.
"In that moment, for sure, we never thought that we have the chance to be in a final again."
On Friday the Spaniard beat Bulgarian Grigor Dimitrov 6-3 5-7 7-6 (7-5) 6-7 (4-7) 6-4 in almost five hours to reach a first Grand Slam final since 2014.
While Federer was also extended over five sets in his semi-final, the Swiss will have had an extra day to recover from his win over countryman Stan Wawrinka.
Nadal was in a similar situation in 2009 when he recovered from a gruelling five-hour win over Fernando Verdasco in the last four to beat Federer in the final in Melbourne.
"That is what I am going to try. I did it in 2009, but I am eight years older," Nadal said.
"It is true that if you play a match like I had today, probably you are at a disadvantage. But that's a special situation. I cannot complain about that. I think it is good.
"But now is not the time to talk about that. It is time to be happy, very happy."
Dimitrov taking positives
Under the guidance of Andy Murray's former coach Dani Vallverdu, Dimitrov has risen to number 15 in the world from 40th in July.
Having pushed Nadal all the way, he believes his Australian Open campaign is a strong base to build his season on.
"It's never easy to lose a match like that. I'm happy, though, with a lot of things. I'm going to stay positive and keep my head up high.
"I'm competing great. Physically I'm getting there. Despite the disappointment, that's going to feed me, I think, for the upcoming events."
While refusing to predict the result, the Bulgarian said that Sunday's final would be a "freakin' amazing" match.
Australian Open: tennis greats divided on Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal
Federer-Nadal Australian Open final – how the greats see it:
Rod Laver: “I’m really not judging if one is favoured over the other because both know each other’s game. If he serves well, maybe Roger has an edge. But I couldn’t go much further than that because I don’t know. When you look at Nadal’s forehand whipped into Roger’s backhand, I do know that Roger said a few years ago: ‘I’ve got to do something’. So he got a larger-headed racquet and a little bit more power in weight so now, when there’s this heavy topspin comes in, he won’t have to slice it as much, which allows Nadal to get around it and be aggressive with that forehand a little more.”
Roy Emerson: “Every time I pick Federer because he’s my favourite. He’s serving awfully well and, when he serves well, he’s difficult over five sets. Rafa is in great physical shape and he’s also difficult over five sets. With Federer taking a medical break after two sets, no one knows how he is [physically].”
John Newcombe: “Roger’s game suits Rafa, but he does have an all-court game, Roger, and he’s got to bring that to the table. He’s got to serve and volley 30% of the time on his first serve; he’s got to do a lot of little slice backhands; he’s got to keep changing up what he does.”
Lleyton Hewitt: “The match-up certainly suits Rafa slightly more but how is he going to bounce back from that [five-hour semi-final]? It was so taxing and gruelling on his body. Roger’s going to have to throw in the serve-volley attacking tennis but the court and the balls this year playing slightly quicker certainly plays into Roger’s hands.”
Pat Rafter: “Probably Rafa, but I don’t know how much last night has taken out of him and I have to imagine a lot. And I don’t know how Federer is either. It all depends on how these guys pull up. They could be just shattered. Roger’s got to be sore. I really don’t know how they’re going to be and how they’re going to feel. Sometimes having a two-day break is not great either. You’re sort of losing momentum. I’d like to see Federer change a few things up in his game if he wants to beat Rafa; be slightly more aggressive, come into the net a bit more.”
Pat Cash: “Everything points to Roger. A fast hardcourt, night time is perfect for Federer. Lower-bouncing balls this year is perfect for Federer. He’s fresh, perfectly made for Federer. The only thing is Rafa’s got him in the head. That’s the only question mark.”
Mark Philippoussis: “Honestly, it’s like a coin toss. I’m going to take 52% Roger and 48 Nadal maybe, just if I had to pick someone. If anyone could have beaten Federer when he was on a roll, it was Nadal. But I just feel like with the faster conditions of the courts, Federer will be looking to take advantage of that and getting in whenever possible and taking advantage of that net play.”
Darren Cahill: “Both guys are living the dream. I don’t think either in their heart of hearts thought they’d get back to a men’s final and certainly not to be playing each other. Head to head, you have to lean towards Rafa but then, with the break, you have to lean towards Roger. There are so many variables. If I had to go one over the other, I’d go slightly Rafa but it wouldn’t surprise me to see Roger come out on top. He’s adding to his legacy in the game and, if he does beat Rafa, I’m not sure there would be too many single performances that would rate higher.”