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  • Four years ago, both Federer and Nadal lost in the quarters at French Open. At the time, it seemed like the end of an era. Four years later, they're set to face off in the semifinal of another Grand Slam.
By Stanley Kay
June 04, 2019

Four years ago, the French Open felt like an ending. For Roger Federer, then 34, a straight-sets loss to Stan Wawrinka in the quarterfinal was further evidence that his career was nearing its inevitable conclusion. For Rafael Nadal, a quarterfinal defeat to Novak Djokovic evoked a crumbling dynasty, a nine-time champion relinquishing his crown after a historically dominant stretch. It was Nadal’s second-ever loss ever at Roland Garros.

Now it’s 2019, and Federer and Nadal are set to play in the Roland Garros semifinals. It’s the latest chapter of a delightfully preposterous epilogue, an encore that has resuscitated a rivalry not long ago on life support. For tennis fans, their simultaneous revivals since January ‘17—three majors since then for Federer, three for Nadal, returns to world No. 1 for both—have been like the fifth hour of a Springsteen concert: an unexpected, nostalgia-soaked afterparty. Glory days, indeed.

So let’s pause to acknowledge our luck. Federer and Nadal played once in 2014, once in 2015 and not at all in 2016. The rivalry, unfortunately, had reached its denouement. Or so we thought. Instead, they’ve played four matches since ’17—all Federer victories—including that year’s epic Australian Open final.

They haven’t, however, played on clay—not since 2013. Federer, who skipped the clay season each of the past two years, is winless in five career French Open matches against Nadal, including their most recent meeting in 2011. He’s only beaten him twice on dirt in 15 matches, most recently in 2009.

Will this time be any different? Federer, now 37, has won five straight matches against Nadal, the best run of his career. Yes, those victories all came on hard courts, but they aren’t entirely meaningless—at the very least, Federer can justifiably believe he can win. The mental aspect of tennis cannot be overstated, and it’s true that the rivalry feels a bit less one-sided these days, though Nadal still holds a 23–15 career advantage.

Still, considering Nadal’s dominant form—he was ludicrously good in the quarterfinals against Kei Nishikori—and the fact that he’s only lost two matches ever at Roland Garros, it’s hard to see him losing on Friday. In the past, Federer’s one-handed backhand has been no match for Nadal’s topspin-heavy forehand, and Nadal will mercilessly target the ad court in this semifinal. Federer, to his credit, significantly upgraded his topspin backhand in 2017, which helped him beat Nadal four times that year. But on clay, it’s an entirely different challenge.

In his quarterfinal win over Stan Wawrinka, Federer was eager to rush the net, a tactic that proved fruitful: he won 41 net points compared to just nine for Wawrinka. Federer came to the net often against Nadal in the 2011 final, his best performance against the Spaniard at Roland Garros, and won 68% of those points in a four-set loss. Expect Federer to be aggressive again on Friday. He’ll also need to take advantage of break point opportunities, which he failed to do against Wawrinka, converting just two of 18.

No matter the outcome of Friday's match (and, for what it’s worth, I expect Nadal to win in straight sets), Federer reaching the French Open’s last four at age 37 is a remarkable achievement, an incredible feat worth celebrating. Appreciate it—appreciate them—while there’s still time.  

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