Maybe every Federer-Nadal is a Federer-Nadal for the ages, and when we look back we'll marvel at our luck that these two comets coincided for a decade. But let's say with a bit of boldness that the upcoming Federer-Nadal — in a date punched when they respectively dispatched Andy Murray and Grigor Dimitrov in the Australian Open quarterfinals — makes for one of the most intriguing Federer-Nadals yet.
This Federer-Nadal, after all, might forecast whether we continue to get high-level Federer-Nadals, so deep into Grand Slams. Because while Rafael Nadal, ranked No. 1 in the world and 27 years old, presumably has several more of these left in the tank, Roger Federer, down at No. 6 and now as forever five years Nadal's senior, might be in the twilight of his Federer-ness. This time when Federer faces Nadal in Melbourne (overnight Friday U.S. time), he'll be playing for the very right to still be Roger Fucking Federer. The early returns, based on his at-times shaky 6-3, 6-4, 6-7 (6), 6-3 win over Murray, is that those days, thought to be behind him, might yet be upon us. Federer is the past; Federer is not the future. The question is whether Federer can still be the present.
Were it any other player but RFF, the win over Murray, rather than the degree of dominance, would be the story (even with Murray just four months removed from back surgery). "Federer had not faced a break point all evening but, when the moment arrived to close out the match," wrote the BBC's Piers Newbury, "the 17-time major winner looked more like the fragile player that had slipped down the rankings last year." Over at ESPN.com, Melissa Isaacson came away more impressed, writing that with a larger-faced racquet and new coach Stefan Edberg, RFF "certainly looks more aggressive and better equipped to challenge for more Grand Slam titles." She summarizes his recent bout with mortality as "coming off a career decline," an optimistic diagnosis if ever one was offered to a player now years past his apex.
Federer is feeling more himself, wonky back or no. "What I used to do so well, the transition game from defense to offense, I definitely sensed that today, I am back physically," he said. "I'm explosive out there. I can get to balls. I'm not afraid to go for balls." It was unforced errors with his racquet, rather than a lack of foot speed, that cost him the chance to put Murray away in three sets. Those sorts of mistakes you can expect Federer to make only so often. If his age isn't taking away his legs, what the hell's the point of being his junior? Meanwhile Nadal is dealing with a racquet-hand blister that has blossomed to stigmata proportions — so for what it's worth, Federer feels his old feet beneath him, and Nadal could use another left hand.
Nadal has beaten Federer 22 of the 32 times they've played, and hasn't lost to the Swiss since 2012, five matches ago, the third such streak for Nadal in their rivalry. Nadal has never beaten RFF six straight. If the Spaniard takes this next one, with their physical conditions perhaps as close as they'll ever be, it might signal the end of an era: The one in which, records be damned, a Federer-Nadal pits two of the greats at their ass-kicking finest. Once we know for certain how these matches will shake out, any future Federer-Nadal simply cannot live up to its names.
Photo credit: AP