This photo’s from 2005—they were about to meet in a Grand Slam for the first time, the 2005 French Open, a semifinal match Rafael Nadal won before claiming the title, his first of many. They’d then spend about a decade at the top of the game, sucking up all the available oxygen, dominating all majors in sight. Then they got old, got hurt, tumbled out of the upper echelon. Now, improbably, 35-year-old Federer and 30-year-old Rafa, both rebounding from an injury-marred 2016, will meet in the final of the 2017 Australian Open. This feels less like hard fact and more like fan service administered by some sport genie.
It took some luck—unseeded Mischa Zverev and Denis Istomin should be thanked for knocking out No. 1 Andy Murray and No. 2 Novak Djokovic along the way—but both had to mow down tough foes to earn spots in Sunday’s throwback final. Both players will come into the final fresh off two straight five-setters.
In his semifinal match today, Nadal defeated the Federer-esque Grigor Dimitrov in 6-3, 5-7, 7-6 (5), 6-7 (4), 6-4. The deciding set scanned as one continuous highlight reel that saw Rafa fend off two break points at 4-4, rising to his offensive peak for two timely saves, first with a down-the-line backhand winner, next with a quick net approach. He then found his own break to go up 5-4 and serve out the four-hour, 56-minute slog. Dimitrov, a spry 25-year-old among the rest of these geezers, seems set for a hot 2017: He played this match about as well as Roger would have, with all the risky shot-making to the corners needed to put Rafa on his heels.
If you take age as a serious constraint—though given the all-Williams final on the women’s side, that’s getting harder to believe—this will likely be the last time Federer and Nadal ever meet in the final of a major. As usual Nadal will be the favorite, given how their skillsets match up, how one force-feeds the other his least favorite ball. When it comes to Federer’s legacy, the damage has been done; Nadal will always be the asterisk lingering on his claim to greatest-of-all-time status, the one matchup that vexed him even as the Swiss won a record 17 Grand Slams over the Spaniard’s 14. There are not enough years left in their legs for Federer to ever level out Nadal’s 23-11 head-to-head advantage, or his 9-2 history in Grand Slams, so the best he can hope is to square up against his most familiar antagonist and end their classic rivalry on a W.