Rafael Nadal improved to 23-10 against Roger Federer. (Greg Wood/AFP/Getty Images)
MELBOURNE, Australia -- Thirty-third verse, same as the first.
No. 1 Rafael Nadal's quest to become the third player to win all four Grand Slam tournaments at least twice continues after he withstood an early challenge from No. 6 Roger Federer and rolled 7-6 (4), 6-3, 6-3 in the semifinals of the Australian Open on Friday. The 13-time major champion on Sunday will face first-time Slam finalist Stanislas Wawrinka, who will replace Federer as the Swiss No. 1 next week.
In the 33rd meeting between the two best players over the last 10 years, Nadal pulled out a 59-minute first set and rolled from there to improve to 3-0 against Federer at the Australian Open. As Rod Laver and Pete Sampras sat in the crowd, Nadal showed once again why his now 23-10 record against Federer is no fluke.
Federer, contesting his 11th consecutive Australian Open semifinal, had been riding a wave of confidence after big wins over No. 10 Jo-Wilfried Tsonga in the fourth round and No. 4 Andy Murray in the quarterfinals. Armed with a new racket and new coach Stefan Edberg, the whispers around Melbourne Park were that Federer was primed to snap his four-match losing streak to Nadal and beat his rival at a Slam for the first time since 2007.
Nadal snuffed out that belief quickly. Federer didn't earn a break point until the third set and his hyper-aggressive start to the match subsided quickly in the face of Nadal's impenetrable defense.
Here is game-by-game analysis of how Nadal weathered the early pressure to run away with another win over Federer:
6:18 a.m. ET | Rafael Nadal defeats Roger Federer, 7-6 (4), 6-3, 6-3 to advance to his third Australian Open final.
The rain is coming and Nadal is racing to close this out before it hits Melbourne Park and they close the roof. He gets into a tricky spot at 30-all but two backhand errors from Federer and he holds. This has definitely been the sloppiest set of the three from both men.
I don't think you ever want to teach kids to return serve from 15 feet behind the baseline, but if you did you would cue up this return game from Nadal. He's swatting return winners from impossibly deep positions. Federer, meanwhile, is on autopilot. Once again he tries to approach to the Nadal forehand. Once again he gets burned badly and Nadal has his first match point.
Federer saves it with some good attacking play. He attacks the net again but again approaches to the forehand and Nadal bananas a passing shot down the line. Match point No. 2.
Game, set, match Rafael Nadal. Federer sends his 50th unforced error long off the forehand and that's it. Another impossibly ruthless performance by Nadal. That was a butt-kicking display. A thumping. It wasn't as close as the scoreline indicates. This will hurt Federer, especially given how much confidence he had coming into the match.
Federer: 8 aces, 1 double-fault, 66 percent first serves, 50 percent second-serve points won, 1 of 2 on break points, 23 of 42 net points, 34 winners (only two on his backhand), 50 unforced errors.
Nadal: 3 aces, 1 double-fault, 65 percent first serves, 73 percent second-serve points won, 4 of 14 break points, 3 of 10 net points, 28 winners, 25 unforced errors.
Nadal 105, Federer 86.
6:06 a.m. ET | Nadal breaks, leads *4-3.
Nadal holds at love with his easiest service game in a while. That should settle him down.
And surely he is. He breaks Federer as the Swiss is the one who is still unsettled. He hits three straight errors and hands over the break. Disappointing.
6:00 a.m. ET | Federer breaks, leads 3-2*.
Federer gets his first break point of the match and sends the forehand return long. But he finally gets a break on his second break point when Nadal hits his fourth unforced error of the game. Shocker of a game from Nadal. New life for the Swiss? There's also a report that rain might be coming ...
Two bad forehand errors from Federer and he's down two break points right off the bat. But he saves them, lets out a "Kom' jetzt!" (that would be "Let's go!" in German) and reels off the next four points. Huge consolidation to get things back on serve.
5:46 a.m. ET | Nadal breaks, leads *2-1.
Easy holds from both men to start the third set.
Federer is starting to spray his shots and he's down two break points. "Exhausted might be a strong word, but he's definitely fatiguing out there," Patrick McEnroe says. "I think it's more mental."
Sure enough, Nadal breaks with a forehand pass that Federer puts into the net. One-way traffic.
Here's a good look from ESPN at the not-so-secret matchup problem that Federer has faced from the minute Nadal arrived on the scene:
5:39 a.m. ET | Rafael Nadal wins the second set and leads 7-6 (4), 6-3.
Easy hold from Federer, but Nadal will serve for the set.
Nadal falls into a quick 0-30 hole with two unforced errors, but he reels it back in in quintessential Rafa style. At 15-30, he wins a 21-shot rally that Federer tries to break open with a big, heavy cross-court backhand, only to see Nadal scurry over and slap an insane forehand down the line for a winner. Nadal holds and takes a two-set lead.
Watch that point:
Here's the second-set stat line:
Federer: 2 aces, 0 double-faults, 69 percent first serves, 56 percent second-serve points won, no break points, 8 for 12 at the net, 12 winners, 11 unforced errors.
Nadal: 1 ace, 52 percent first serves in, 92 percent second-serve points won, 1 for 5 on break points, 1 for 1 at the net, 13 winners, 6 unforced errors.
5:29 a.m. ET | Nadal breaks, leads *5-2.
Nadal earns two break points thanks to an absolutely insane get. Federer actually wrong-foots him and puts the volley behind him. Nadal runs back, tracks it down and flicks it barely over the net and it stuns everyone. Federer barely gets his racket on it.
Watch the point here:
Two points later, Nadal breaks with a big forehand winner after -- again, I can't say it enough -- Federer's passive play. He's just not getting enough stick or depth on the ball anymore and neutral balls are being sent back without much on them.
Nadal breaks. I'd be shocked if Federer gets a set in this match. Federer looks like a man with no solutions and he knows it.
Nadal consolidates the break without any drama.
A girl shouts 'come on Roger you sexy m...' Security guards on their way to escort her out. #law #order
— Ubaldo Scanagatta (@Ubitennis) January 24, 2014
5:22 a.m. ET | Nadal holds, leads 3-2*.
While I've been quietly laughing at Federer complaining about Nadal's grunting -- has he not noticed it the last 32 times they've played? -- Federer finds himself down a break point. He saves it with a service winner. But Nadal gets another one after a perfectly played point, pulling Federer wide to his forehand with a backhand and then firing a backhand down the line into the open court. He saves that, but again, Nadal earns a third break point with a backhand pass. Federer saves it with a nice forehand approach down the line that lands as a winner.
It's an eight-minute game, but Federer holds with the help of his good friend Hawk-Eye. A forehand was called wide and, as it turns out, it landed right on the line.
Rafa does the most amazing job putting missed opportunities behind him
— Brad Gilbert (@bgtennisnation) January 24, 2014
Nadal responds with a hold at love.
5:09 a.m. ET | Nadal holds, leads 2-1*.
Federer bounces back to earn 0-30 on Nadal's serve to start the second set, but at 30-all he leaps into a forehand swing volley and nets it. You could hear Fed Nation groan. Nadal holds and calls the trainer for his hand.
After the brief break, Federer comes out and holds at 15, loudly exhorting himself after ever point. He's trying to send a message to Nadal that he still believes he's in this and that he'll keep coming. But Federer needs to put his racket where his mouth is. Nadal isn't exactly one to get intimidated by any verbal messages being sent his way.
Nadal holds at love.
Federer complaining to umpire Jake Garner about Nadal's ... grunting? "That's not something new," says Garner. No kidding. But the complaining clearly shows Federer is on edge.
Courtside complaint tweetings: I don't like the gruntings, nor that he keeps hitting the ball back #annoying
— Not Roger Federer (@PseudoFed) January 24, 2014
4:51 a.m. ET | Rafael Nadal wins the first set 7-6 (4).
After a strong, aggressive start from Federer, it's Nadal who reels him back in and takes the set. We can talk about form and confidence and new coaches all we want, but the bottom line is no matter how good you feel about your game, you can't forget 22 losses to one guy. As that set wore on, you could see the doubt start creeping into Federer's game and by the end of the set he was back to his mortal self. Nadal has the power to do that. Hence a 22-10 record against him.
Here's how the tiebreaker played out:
1-0, Nadal: Mini-break to Nadal after a 16-shot rally ends when Federer hits a cross-court backhand that ticks off the net cord and lands wide.
1-1, tied: Nadal loses the mini-break with a regulation backhand wide. Surprising miss from Rafa.
2-1, Nadal: Oof. Ugly, lazy backhand miss wide from Federer. Almost looked like he didn't know what he wanted to do with the ball so he tried guiding it and floated it wide.
3-1, Nadal: Federer approaches and puts a forehand volley into the net. His foot slipped a little bit as he hit it.
4-1, Nadal: More passive play from Federer and Nadal is completely on top of him in the rally.
5-1, Nadal: Nadal is standing on the baseline, Federer is playing behind the baseline. A recipe for disaster for the Swiss, who isn't the confident guy he was 40 minutes ago when he was blasting the ball.
5-2, Federer: Nadal slings a forehand wide after Federer sends the return right at his feet.
5-3, Federer: Finally Federer steps in and rips two massive groundstrokes, one backhand and an even bigger forehand. He finishes the point at the net with a backhand volley.
5-4, Federer: Service winner from Federer.
6-4, Nadal: He snaps the run of Federer points and has a set point on his serve.
7-4, Nadal: Federer sails a backhand long and after 59 minutes Nadal has the first set.
Here's the stat line on the first set:
Federer: 3 aces, 1 double-fault, 63 percent first serves, 69 percent second-serve points won, no break points, 9 for 15 at the net, 10 winners, 24 unforced errors.
Nadal: 1 ace, 0 double-faults, 70 percent first serves, 67 percent second-serve points won, 0 for 3 on break points, 2 for 7 at the net, 6 winners, 15 unforced errors.
4:41 a.m. ET | Nadal holds, tied 6-6*.
First point of Nadal's service game: 33 shots. It didn't work out for Federer. He plays it a little too passively. When Nadal sends a high looper to his backhand, Federer lets the ball drop instead of stepping in to hit it on the rise; he puts it into the net. On the whole, it's surprisingly passive game from Federer. You'd think he would have stepped in and taken some big rips to try to get the break for the set.
Nadal holds. Tiebreaker. Nadal has withstood the early barrage of offense from Federer and it feels like the match is being played on his terms now.
4:35 a.m. ET | Federer holds, leads 6-5*.
Nadal starts off well with two service winners to build to 30-0 and he looks on his way to an easy hold before two loose errors make it 30-all. Federer sends a forehand unforced long. He's frustrated. He can't take advantage of some of these short backhands that Nadal is leaving for him. Nadal holds with an impossibly angled ace that I'm not sure anyone can believe landed in. It did. This pro-Federer crowd (is there really any other kind when he takes the court?) barely applauded that service hold from Nadal.
Easy hold for Federer. Headed for a tiebreaker?
4:27 a.m. ET | Federer holds, leads 5-4*.
It's amazing how much better Federer is moving this year compared to last year. In the longest rally of the match, a 21-shot scrambler, Nadal finally gets the better of Federer with a lunging forehand flick that he sends impossibly deep on the baseline; Federer puts a forehand into the net. But that was great tennis from Federer and he remained on the offensive even as Nadal kept yanking him all over the court. Then again, will the fact that he's playing so well and yet still level frustrate the Swiss? This set is huge for his confidence. He needs it.
Darren Cahill said yesterday that he thought Federer needed at least 15 aces to win this match. Through four and a half service games he has just one and he just threw in his first double-fault. Then he follows it up with his second ace.
The ball is absolutely leaping off the court. Nadal directs a heavy forehand to the Federer backhand (reusable description) and the ball gets too high on Federer and he dumps it weakly into the net. But Nadal can't convert his third break point of the match and Federer gets a little more luck, as a forehand ticks the net cord but goes over and he eventually wins the rally. Federer holds.
4:18 a.m. ET | Federer holds, leads 4-3*.
Nadal responds with a love hold.
On Federer's fourth service game, Nadal makes his move. Federer opens the door with a forehand error. Two points later, Nadal rifles a backhand cross court return past him. At 15-30, Federer makes the ill-advised move (again) to approach to Nadal's forehand. The Spaniard makes him pay with a down-the-line pass.
But Nadal lets him off the hook. He has a look at two backhand passes and he fires both out. Shocking. It takes two deuces, but Federer finally holds. He really dodged a bullet there.
4:08 a.m. ET | Federer holds, leads 3-2*.
Big opportunity for Federer to break. He gets to 0-30 thanks to a fantastic pick-up volley that sets up a forehand volley putaway. But Nadal slams the door with a great backhand pass down the line and then gets two unforced errors from Federer to earn game point. On Nadal's first second serve of the match, Federer runs around it and cracks a forehand down the line for a winner. This is all-out aggression from Federer. He's attacking the net and he hasn't hit a slice backhand yet, coming over the top on every ball.
From deuce, Nadal holds. Federer responds with a love hold.
4 a.m. ET | Federer holds, leads 2-1*.
Nadal gets to 30 on Federer's serve but the Swiss snuffs it out with a nice one-two punch, pulling Nadal wide to his backhand and hitting a forehand down the line for the winner. On game point a net cord pulls Federer into the net and he delicately executes a drop shot. Nadal races forward and smacks a backhand cross court, but Federer holds his ground and puts away the volley.
Nice to see Andre Agassi is watching at home:
— Andre Agassi (@AndreAgassi) January 24, 2014
3:57 a.m. ET | Nadal holds, tied 1-1*.
Clean hold to start for Federer. Nadal can't get get three backhand returns in play and loses the game at 15.
Now we get a look at the Nadal serve. His hand isn't as taped up as it was in his last two rounds, and Toni Nadal says the blisters are better. Here's a reminder of what he's dealing with:
"I feel that with the tape I can lose the racket when I serving," Nadal said after his win over Grigor Dimitrov. "That's a terrible feeling for a serve, because then when you have this feeling you are not able to accelerate at the right moment." The blisters only affect his serve, he says, and not his forehand.
So far, so good. Nadal holds at love.
3:51 a.m. ET | Warm up
There's a slight delay for the match to start for two reasons. First, the women's doubles final, won by No. 1 Sara Errani and Roberta Vinci, went a full three sets and just wrapped up. Second, there's RoofGate! The roof over Rod Laver Arena was closed when today's session began due to early rain, and when they tried to open it for the women's doubles final, it got stuck. It looks about 30 percent open at the moment, and despite the dark clouds and dropping temperatures, they want it open for this men's semifinal.
The players are on court and it's that rare sight of Federer walking out before Nadal (the lower seed walks out first). Brad Gilbert is picking Nadal in four tight sets.
During the afternoon, Pete Sampras came in for a press conference. Here's what he had to say about tonight's match and the sport-changing rivalry between these two stars.
"Roger is 32," Sampras said. "Rafa is in his prime, 27, 28. So, sure, it's not going to last forever. You have to appreciate this match tonight, so much so that you just have to sit back and enjoy it. These are two of the greatest players of all time playing in the same decade. It's one for the ages. Let's hope it lives up to the expectations. Certainly it's not going to last forever. Everybody gets older and we all retire at some stage."
"Today is a very difficult match for us and I hope it's a difficult match for Roger, too," Nadal's coach Toni tells Pam Shriver. He says "the hand is better." We'll see.
The roof is finally open, which means with the wind and cooler temperatures, the conditions favor Nadal as this match begins. The clouds are dark and rain is expected in Melbourne tonight, but the hope is that it won't hit Melbourne Park.
So can Federer notch just his second win over Nadal on outdoor hard court? They've played on the surface nine times, with Nadal leading 7-2. "I'm looking forward to speaking to Stefan, because when we spoke together when he came to Dubai and we spoke about the game, we clearly spoke about playing Rafa, as well," Federer said after his great win over Andy Murray in the quarterfinals. "He thought he had some good ideas, so I'm looking forward to what he has to say. Clearly with Severin, he knows him inside out. I'm looking forward to hear what the boys have to say. We'll prepare. I hope I can get a win. We'll see."
We'll see indeed. Federer will serve first. As he toes the line the crowd at Rod Laver Arena let out a monstrous roar.
No. 1 Rafael Nadal and No. 6 Roger Federer will meet in the semifinals of the Australian Open on Friday. The match is scheduled to begin at 7:30 p.m. local time (3:30 a.m. ET). ESPN will televise. The winner will face No. 8 Stanislas Wawrinka in Sunday's final.
This will mark the 33rd meeting between Nadal, a 13-time Grand Slam champion, and Federer, a record 17-time Grand Slam champion. Their decade-long rivalry has been a boon for tennis fans, who have had the luxury of watching two of the best ever clash time after time on the biggest stages when the stakes are highest. Of their 32 matches, 28 have been in semifinals or finals, with one more on the way. They've battled 10 times at Grand Slam tournaments, 16 times at Masters events and five times at the prestigious season-ending ATP World Tour Finals.
Nadal has the upper hand: He's 22-10 against Federer, including 2-0 at the Australian Open and 8-2 overall at Grand Slam tournaments. Federer has not beaten Nadal at a Slam since Wimbledon in 2007. Their most recent meeting at a major was Nadal's four-set victory in the 2012 Australian Open semifinals.
"He's been tough to play against, no doubt," Federer said. "I'm happy I get a chance to play him in a Slam again."
Federer earned that chance by beating No. 10 Jo-Wilfried Tsonga in the fourth round and No. 4 Andy Murray in the quarterfinals. A four-time champion, Federer has made 11 consecutive semifinals in Melbourne. He's pleased with his form and fitness after struggling with both last year.
"I am back physically," Federer said. "I'm explosive out there. I can get to balls. I'm not afraid to go for balls."
Federer will need that assertive approach against Nadal, who has overcome a blistered hand to beat No. 16 Kei Nishikori in three tight sets in the fourth round and No. 22 Grigor Dimitrov in four sets in the quarterfinals. Nadal, the 2009 champion, is two victories from becoming the second player in the Open era to win all four Grand Slam tournaments twice.