Federer’s slip to fifth in the world rankings has left him vulnerable to unfortunate draws, and sure enough he landed in Nadal’s quarter at the Western and Southern Open. For just the third time in their storied rivalry, the two all-time greats will face off before the semi-final stage of a major tournament, with the victor likely to face an equally tough last four showdown with Andy Murray.
For much of his match with Tommy Haas on Thursday, it didn’t look like Federer would even get this far. The Swiss was curiously blasé during the first set of their third round match, dropping serve twice and failing to take advantage of three break point opportunities on Haas’ serve. When he went a break down in the second set, it seemed that he was headed for another disappointing defeat.
But the 17-time Grand Slam champion erased a 2-4 second set deficit and eventually evened the contest at one set all. In the decider, while Haas grew increasingly frustrated, Federer began hitting more cleanly from the baseline. One break was all he needed to wrap up an impressive comeback victory 1-6, 7-5, 6-3 in one hour, 52 minutes. It wasn’t brilliant tennis, but it was gutsy.
“These are the matches I need right now,” said Federer afterwards. “Every minute more in a match is a good thing right now – it gives me an opportunity to do better in the next match, and it gives me more information going to New York as well.”
Nadal also had a tough time booking his spot in the last eight. Playing “Baby Fed” Grigor Dimitrov, the Spaniard dominated the first set with typically relentless hitting from the back of the court. Towards the end of a more competitive second set, however, Dimitrov raised his level, energised the crowd and sneaked it 7-5. Yet the Bulgarian couldn’t maintain his inspired form, and a businesslike Nadal eventually emerged a 6-2, 5-7, 6-2 winner. Although he wasn’t in quite as much trouble as Federer, the King of Clay spent ten more minutes on court, and admitted that he struggled to compete with peak Dimitrov in the middle stages of the match.
“His serve was working well in the second set, so I had to wait for my moment. I started the third set trying to go another time inside the baseline and trying to have control of the point from there, and I think I played a good third set in general.”
So who will triumph in Friday’s clash of the titans? One of longest, richest rivalries in the history of men’s tennis has left us with plenty of data to pore over. Nadal leads the overall head-to-head 20-10. Federer fans will point out that 13 of those victories came on clay courts – by far Rafa’s best surface – but he has also won half of the pair’s 12 hard court encounters. Their most recent hard court clash was in Indian Wells in March: Nadal took that one 6-4, 6-2, but a back injury had left Federer unable to move freely.
The Swiss says he is finally free of that pain and ready to produce his best tennis again; he has also dispensed with the larger-framed racket he was experimenting with earlier this summer. His legions of admirers would love nothing more than a commanding performance against his arch-rival to prove that he is still a top-level contender rather than a legend in irreversible decline. But for that to happen, Federer will have to play his best match of the year so far, devoid of the shanks, unforced errors and big-moment lapses that have characterised his play in 2013.
Making the task even more difficult for Federer is the fact that Nadal is playing better than ever. He has lost only three matches all year, and even looked to have raised his game to new heights last week in Montreal: against Novak Djokovic in the semi-finals, he took the ball earlier and regularly ventured towards the net.
Nadal will target Federer’s backhand with looping topspin forehands deep into the corners. He’ll use his lefty serve to open up the court, and scramble tirelessly for every ball. Federer will try to gain the upper hand by dominating at the net, but with Nadal’s ability to thread the needle, every volley will have to be pinpoint. That’s a big ask for a man who has struggled with timing and consistency this season.
There might not be many chapters left in this rivalry, so it would be wonderful to see a competitive match with both men at their very best. But based on current form and confidence levels, the most likely outcome is a straight sets win for Nadal.