Ask any fan or pundit to refute the claim that Roger Federer is the greatest men’s tennis player of all time, and he will, without question, point to one thing before all others: Federer’s record against Rafael Nadal. It’s not just that Federer has a losing record against the most significant rival of his career, it’s that he has been completely and utterly dominated by Nadal. The Spaniard is 22-10 lifetime against Federer, and 8-2 in Grand Slam matches. Nadal has owned Federer since their first meeting in 2004. It is the lone blemish on Federer’s otherwise sterling resume—one that would unquestionably include many more Grand Slam titles were it not for Nadal, who has always been Federer’s white whale.
On Friday night in Melbourne, Federer and Nadal will meet for the 33rd time in the semifinals of the Australian Open. The two have not met in a Grand Slam since the semifinals of the 2012 Aussie Open, which Nadal won in four sets before ultimately falling to Novak Djokovic. The 32-year-old Federer has never defeated the 27-year-old Nadal in a Grand Slam match that wasn’t held at the All-England Club (he’s 0-8 lifetime against Rafa in Melbourne and Paris; the two, however improbably, have never met at the U.S. Open). And yet when the two step on the court Friday night, there will be hope that Federer can somehow find a way to defeat his nemesis and make his sixth appearance in the finals of the Australian Open.
That hope comes from a reasonable place. Federer is currently playing better than he has since he won Wimbledon in 2012. He has defeated two of the game’s top talents en route to the semifinal (Jo-Wilfried Tsonga in the 4th round and two-time Grand Slam champion Andy Murray in the quarterfinals) while dropping just one set, which he lost in a tiebreak to Murray on Wednesday night. His serving has been dominant, winning well over 80% of his first serves, and his backhand is once again formidable thanks to a racket change made at the start of the year. Having new coach Stefan Edberg in his corner hasn’t seem to hurt either.
Most importantly, Federer is once again confident. “I’m much higher than I was last year and that’s very satisfying because I have confidence in my movement. It’s really become a game of movement out there and last year it just felt like it just wasn’t quite right,” Federer said in a televised interview after defeating Murray.”
If Federer is to defeat Nadal at a non-Wimbledon Grand Slam—not to mention earn a shot a-record 18th Grand Slam championship—he may never get a better chance than this. A win on Friday wouldn’t even make a dent in Federer’s lifetime record against Nadal, but it would go a long way toward making that record more palatable.
The problem with all that, as it always is for Federer, is Nadal. Nadal hasn’t had the easiest path to the semifinals, dropping a set in the quarters against 22nd-ranked Gregory Dimitrov and battling a gruesome blister on his service hand, but he’s never seemed in any real danger of losing. Save for a fluke loss in the first round of Wimbledon last year, Nadal hasn’t seemed in any real danger of losing at a Grand Slam event since the Australian Open in 2012. It wouldn’t be a stretch to say that since returning from injury in February 2013, Nadal has played the best tennis of his career. And whenever he meets Federer, the outcome always seems inevitable.
Everyone in Melbourne has been saying that Federer looks like “vintage Federer” and they may be right. But even vintage Federer didn’t have an answer for Nadal. Some whales just aren’t meant to be caught.