Australian Open 2012: Nadal rains on Federer fireworks once more

No2 seed Rafael Nadal overcomes Roger Federer 6-7 6-2 7-6 6-4 to secure Australian Open final spot in Melbourne

rafael nadal
Rafael Nadal will play either Andy Murray or Novak Djokovic in the final Photo: Mirsasha, via Flickr

rafael nadal

The umpire’s warning ahead of the most eagerly-anticipated match in this centenary Australian Open was directed to both players as they embraced across the net for the obligatory pre-match photo: “Fireworks at 9 o’clock.”

It was Australia Day, and the script had worked out perfectly. Roger Federer, four-time champion, was playing 2009 champion Rafael Nadal for the 27th time, and the only previous time they had embraced across the net in the Rod Laver arena was before that 2009 final.

Theirs is one of the greatest of sporting rivalries and although Federer has the most Grand Slam titles, was playing here to reach his 24th Major final—five more than anyone else—and has the best hard court record of any other player, Nadal is, quite simply, his nemesis. In only two of their nine Grand Slam meetings had Federer won, the last time being Wimbledon in 2008.

Little wonder that, on this celebratory Australian day, their latest confrontation had drawn not just a capacity crowd but tennis royalty: Rod Laver, Ken Rosewall, Pat Rafter and, despite losing her own semi-final just hours before, “Aussie Kim” Clijsters.

Melbourne’s fireworks lay 90 minutes ahead, but the Federer fireworks burst into life in the first 10 minutes. He promised aggressive tennis—the kind of attacking play that earned his current 25-match-winning streak—and it took only a minute and two serve-and-volley plays to win his opener to love.

He then set about his opponent’s serve in the same way, taking the ball early and converting his first break point with a breathtaking backhand cross-court winner. Another serve-volley, a drop-shot and a backhand down the line later, and Federer led 3-0. He had won 14 points to Nadal’s three—six of them outright winners.

It can take the hurricane that is Nadal a while to wind up at the start of the match. Those who saw him accelerate through the latter stages of his four-set win over Tomas Berdych had no doubt that Nadal’s form and determination would rise to the Federer challenge. He quickly found his “game face”, his rhythm and a hold of serve and, come the seventh game, a couple of Federer volleys failed to strike home and Nadal snatched and converted his first breakpoint.

It was all square at 4-4 and the stats started to tell their unfolding story: Federer’s unforced errors had climbed to eight and would be 15 by the end of the set—identical to his winners. It was the first subtle shift in momentum, affirmed to two love service games from Nadal, and although Federer edged the eventual tie-break, 7-5, it was nervy. Nadal drove a second-serve return long, but would make only six more unforced errors during the second set.

Dark descended and the air cooled, but the fireworks burst into life again from the Federer racket. He made four contrasting winners for an immediate break: a backhand drive onto the baseline; what commentator Mats Wilander called “the best sliced forehand I’ve ever seen;” another backhand drive down the line; and a forehand winner. But this time, Nadal responded without a pause, also to love, and was outscoring Federer on the forehand wing by nine winners to six.

Federer enjoyed a temporary reprieve from Nadal’s pile-driving with the help of new balls that added extra zip to the sharp shooting from the Swiss racket. He held serve to love and found more clean pace on his returns to twice set up break points. However, the clear-sighted certainty that drove his confident wins over Bernard Tomic and Juan Martin del Potro was starting to waver.

He wasted another break chance in the fifth with a forehand error and succumbed to an explosive string of shots from Nadal in the sixth—one a near-impossible winner from a Federer smash made from the extreme boundary of the court. It was an adrenalin-pumping shot and Nadal pounded a backhand past Federer for another break.

Now, as if to highlight Nadal’s irresistible momentum and 5-2 lead, Melbourne’s fireworks lit up the sky. A quiet Federer left the court while Nadal jigged through the ticking minutes, anxious to deal the killer blow. With bangers still reverberating overhead, he broke to love, winning 11 points in a row, 6-2. On paper, it was a set apiece but Nadal had the face, the strut and the snarl of the winner.

He surged through his opening service game of the third set to love and went 40-0 up on Federer’s serve. It took every ounce of concentration from Federer to resist, which he did through four break points, but he seemed, as so many times before, to have fallen under the spell of Nadal’s game.

It is this mental battle, almost as much as their tennis battle, that infuses their matches with such drama. Federer found a little of his own magic to break Nadal, at the fourth attempt, with a winning backhand down the line but still there was a tension about the Federer body language. Sure enough, his fourth double fault of the set gifted the break straight back.

Another nail-biter of a tie-break saw Federer save five straight set points only for Nadal to earn an sixth and take it with his old faithful—a soaring serve to the Federer backhand followed by a winning forehand to the open court.

The stats continued to track the now-inevitable storyline. Federer’s error count for the set was 25, twice the number of winners. He briefly rediscovered the serve-and-volley craft of his opening games to hold the first game of the fourth set and saved a break point in his second.

Again in his third, he faced break points, but a big kick serve to Nadal’s backhand—and a roared “Like that!”—summoned up a string of winners to both hold and earn one more chance to break Nadal.

Yet again, Federer’s forehand let him down—more than half his final tally of 63 errors came from that wing—and he was back to defending his own serve. Nadal made the timely break and served for the match.

Federer saw one last glimmer—two break points—fizzle out with two more loose shots and Nadal sank to his knees in celebration of one more victory over the man he called, just minutes later, “the best of all time.”

Federer afterwards felt that Nadal “plays a bit better against me than against other players.” And today was certainly Nadal’s best performance in some months, a firework display of power and spectacle, set off by a foe whose tennis seems always to provide the perfect foil.

But this makes Nadal’s next match, especially if it is against Novak Djokovic, all the more mouth-watering. For Djokovic, victor over Nadal in six straight finals last year, seems to have the key to the Spaniard that has eluded Federer yet again.

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