From the moment Rafael Nadal threw that verbal jab at Roger Federer, exposing their vastly different views on the tennis schedule, the Australian Open has been a referendum on the two men's styles. Now we get the best possible window into their simmering feud: a semifinal matchup Thursday night in Melbourne (3:30 a.m. ET, ESPN2).
Perhaps "feud" is too strong a word, for the two genuinely like and respect each other. As always, this matchup will be all about sportsmanship and pure tennis. But they've drawn distinct lines in the sand when it comes to the punishing grind of the men's tour. Nadal, fearing his body is approaching its expiration date, wants it shortened. Federer, that model of fitness and longevity, sees no need for change -- and he probably speaks for the majority.
A quick review: At the onset of the tournament, speaking with Spanish reporters, Nadal repeated his long-standing opinion that players need much longer breaks from the game.
"For him, it's good to say nothing," he said of Federer. "Everything positive. 'It's all well and good for me, I look like a gentleman.' And the rest can burn themselves."
Nadal went on to say that Federer "has got a super body, and he'll finish his career as a rose. Neither myself, nor [Andy] Murray, nor [Novak] Djokovic are going to finish our career as a rose."
The ever-diplomatic Federer declared it a behind-the-scenes issue, not for public consumption, adding, "I think of the lower-ranked players first." And that was his most relevant response. Federer's career is a beacon of eternal light, for he enters virtually every tournament in excellent shape. The rank-and-file players need as many events as the calendar allows -- the better to rack up points and higher rankings -- and their case is too often dismissed.
As a result, Nadal came off looking rather foolish. He definitely speaks for a lot of elite players, but is he really the proper spokesman? Nadal has always been the rampaging beast of tennis, an almost childlike character concerned only about winning the next point. His legacy is passion, raw desire, the ultimate in competitive drive. He looks vulnerable and uneasy on the political stage. His career has already taken a major hit on the court, where he admits to his physical and mental shortcomings against Djokovic. To see him last week, squirming in his chair as he backtracked on his comments to the American press, was a bit disturbing.
Ah, but here's the beauty of the game: Nadal can erase all that skepticism with a vintage performance Thursday night. Nobody's going to remember Federer's elegant breeze through the tournament -- including a 6-4, 6-3, 6-2 dismissal of Juan Martin del Potro in the quarterfinals -- if Nadal can win this match. And it's so appropriate that while Federer has been on cruise control so far, Nadal needed four tough sets to dispatch Tomas Berdych 6-7 (5), 7-6 (6), 6-4, 6-3 in his quarterfinal.
Federer-Nadal has been a rivalry rich in texture, dating to the very first meeting, at the 2004 Masters Series in Miami. Nadal was the quirky, superstitious kid in pirate pants, a whirlwind of topspin forehands and defensive wizardry. Federer owned only two majors at that point -- the 2003 Wimbledon and the '04 Australian -- and it marked the stage at which his career began to skyrocket. Starting with that year's Wimbledon, he would win 10 of the next 14 majors, forcing seasoned tennis writers to revise their best-ever lists and move the likes of Rod Laver and Pete Sampras down the rankings.
But Federer lost to Nadal that day in Miami, and when they met for the first time at a Grand Slam event, the semifinals of the '05 French Open, Nadal made it clear that Federer had a weak spot. There was a stunning, irrepressible new force in the game, and it was Rafa on clay.
Nadal won his first five matches against the Swiss on that surface, and nine of the first 10, raising the intriguing question: How can Federer be called the best when he can't beat Nadal? That remains a relevant issue, Nadal taking a 17-9 lifetime edge into Thursday's match, including a 7-2 edge and a four-match winning streak in the majors. The last time Federer emerged victorious on the Grand Slam stage was the 2007 Wimbledon final, and it's a trend he badly wants to reverse.
Most players dance around the topic when asked to choose a favored opponent in an upcoming match, but as Nadal took the court against Berdych on Tuesday night, Federer made it clear that he'd rather play the Spaniard.
"It's been a long time since we played in the semis of a Slam -- maybe back in 2005 at the French," said Federer, with accurate recall. "And I'd obviously like to play him because of our great, epic match here in the finals a few years ago [the 2009 Australian final, Nadal winning in five sets]. I'd like to get a chance to play him again."
Nadal acknowledged that things aren't quite the same in this rivalry, with Djokovic taking a stronghold on the No. 1 ranking, "but when we talk about a player who won 16 Grand Slams, and I won 10, and all those very important moments in our careers, the match is special," Nadal said after defeating Berdych. "It would be special even if we were [ranked] 20 and 25."
So who should be favored?
"Always in these kinds of surfaces, he's the favorite," Nadal said. "His level is fantastic, and he won today a fantastic match against one of the best players in the world, Del Potro. So he's doing very, very well. Did he lose a set yet?"
"No," came the reply.
"So he's playing fantastic, he's coming in with confidence," Nadal said. "It will be a very, very difficult match for me. Obviously, my only chance to win is to play aggressive, and play to a limit. That's what I'm going to try. But for me, the most important thing is [that] I have the calm. The feeling of the level of my game, during all the tournament, was really satisfying. After two years with troubles, injuries, I must be happy for that. If the physical performance affects the result, hopefully that's going to be a little bit of advantage for me, because he's very fit."
The truly great rivalries are marked by conflict, emotion and dramatic shifts of fortune, and so many images come to mind: Nadal's victory in the growing darkness of the 2008 Wimbledon final, widely recognized as the greatest match ever played. A spent, vacant Nadal absorbing a 6-3, 6-0 beating in the ATP World Finals last November.
Now comes the 27th encounter, housing all of the excitement and anticipation we've known for years, with an added twist. The old guy seems downright youthful. The 25-year-old feels the ravages of time. And the tennis year gets a very early jolt of significance.