A look at Roger Federer v. Rafael Nadal

Federer v. Nadal may not meet expectations

This is the ultimate battle in all of sports. A match-up between the Unstoppable Force (Federer’s sublime offense) and the Immovable object (Nadal’s impenetrable defense). However, despite the massive hype and blockbuster billing, this match might fail to even meet expectations.

With 35 titanic clashes over the last 13 years, Federer and Nadal have staked their claim as the greatest rivalry in sporting history. In tennis, time is a commodity and Federer’s time is running out rapidly.

What seemed impossible at the start of the tournament, and a distant dream halfway through, has come to pass. However, based on their history against each other, Rafael Nadal comes into the match as the inevitable favorite.

It may be hard to believe, but Rafa and Rog have met in just one Grand Slam final since the 2009 Australian Open. Their run of epic title matches was essentially over.

However, Federer and Nadal never went away. Rafa was ranked No. 1 as recently as 2014, while Roger finished 2015 at No. 2 and reached the finals of Wimbledon 2014, 2015 and the U.S. Open 2015. Despite all their struggles, Federer and Nadal never stopped being title contenders.

That said, this time they arrived at the Aussie Open not as No. 1 and No. 2 seeds, as in 2009, but as No. 9 (Nadal) and No. 17 (Federer), respectively. Both players are coming off an injury-riddled 2016, and lacking in confidence.

“Both of us, I think, worked very hard to be where we are,” Nadal said on Friday. “Is great that, again, we are in a moment like this and we are going to have a chance again to enjoy a moment like this.”

Form, Court conditions and potential keys to the match:

Federer and Nadal both survived five-set semi-final thrillers, with the Swiss overcoming countryman Stan Wawrinka and the Spaniard denying a resurgent Grigor Dimitrov. It will be their second encounter in the final Down Under, following a four-hour and 23-minute epic in 2009, which saw Nadal prevail 7-5, 3-6, 7-6(3), 3-6, 6-2.

That time, Nadal had played a five-hour match against Fernando Verdasco in the second semi, but he was OK to go five again two days later. We can expect more of the same here.

Federer has cited the faster courts in Melbourne as a reason that he likes his chances better in this match that he did in that one, and the surface does seem to have helped the game’s attacking players over the last two weeks.

Each man has been thoroughly tested along the way. This is the first time Federer has beaten three Top 10 players (Tomas Berdych, Kei Nishikori and Stan Wawrinka) en route to a major final, and he survived two fifth sets over the course of four days.

Nadal also survived two five setters, against Alexander Zverev and Grigor Dimitrov, and beat No. 3 seed Milos Raonic in straights. Both should feel confident in their ability to win a deciding set in the final.

All else being equal, the way it seems to be, that leaves the matchup itself. And that makes Nadal the favorite. He leads Federer 23-11 in their head to head, has won five of their last six and is 3-0 in their Aussie Open meetings.

Ironically, Federer won their last match, on indoor hard courts in Basel in 2015, but the dynamic between them has always favored Rafa. His lefty topspin and sidespin into Federer’s one-handed backhand has been tough for a single-handed backhand to counter, on any court.

Nadal may also be helped by the fact that he just finished playing five sets with Dimitrov, whose game was famously modeled on Federer’s.

To change that dynamic, Federer will obviously need to serve well, do some SABR rattling on his return, and pressure Rafa relentlessly.

In their 2012 semi here, Federer got off to a blistering start, but lost confidence as Nadal sunk his teeth into the match.

Just seeing Nadal and Federer in this setting again should be reward enough for most tennis fans. But I expect they’ll give us a lot more than just their names and reputations.

While the match and the AO 2017 is potentially up for grabs, between you and me, Rafa’s stranglehold on Federer might just prove too much to counter.

Quicks Facts about Fedal #35:

  • It’s their 35th meeting overall, 13 years after their first match, 12 years after their first Grand Slam battle, 11 years after their first Grand Slam final and six years since their last.
  • Federer is the oldest Slam finalist since Ken Rosewall in 1974.
  • The men’s final pits the two most successful Grand Slam champions in history (Federer, 17 vs. Nadal, 14)
  • Nadal has won the last four Slam finals between the two, dating back to the 2008 French Open. Their last Australian Open final was eight years ago in 2009, when Federer famously broke down into tears during the awards ceremony, leading some commentators to suggest he was “finished” at age 27. He went on to win the next two Slams, including completing his career Slam at Roland Garros.
  • Prior to this week, the last nine times Federer and Nadal both made the semifinal at the same major, and only played in the final twice.
  • From 2004 Wimbledon to the 2010 U.S. Open, Federer/Nadal (“Fedal” from here on out) won 21 of 26 Slams. Overall, they will have won 32 of the last 51, after their match on Sunday.
  • Since 2003, the only major at which “the field” has won more titles than Fedal is, the Australian Open. The pair will have six titles in Melbourne including the one on Sunday (four by Federer, one by Nadal). Everybody else has nine, including sixby Novak Djokovic. At Wimbledon, for instance, it’s Fedal 9, rest of tennis 5.
  • For six straight years from 2005-10, Nadal and Federer finished No. 1 and No. 2 in the year-end rankings. Federer was on top in four of those years (plus another one in the year before Nadal’s breakout, when Rafa finished 2003 ranked No. 49), while Nadal bested Federer in the 1-2 showdown on two occasions (plus another one in which Federer finished No. 6).
  • Federer has reached double the Grand Slam finals after turning 32 (four times) than all men born after 1989 have in their entire careers, combined (twice, once by Kei Nishikori and once by Milos Raonic).

Prediction: Rafael Nadal in 4 tight sets



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