What seemed impossible at the start of the tournament, and a distant dream halfway through, has come to pass. A week before Super Bowl LI is played in Houston, men’s tennis will get its own Roman numeral-worthy event: Federer-Nadal
It may be hard to believe, but Rafa and Rog have met in just one Grand Slam final since the 2009 Australian Open. That was the night in Rod Laver Arena when, after a five-set battle, Nadal threw his arm around a tearful Federer’s shoulder. With that gesture, their names would be linked forever, but their run of epic title matches was essentially over.
Still, it would be wrong to say that this long-delayed resumption is a “throwback match” or an “echo from another era.” Federer and Nadal never went away. Rafa was ranked No. 1 as recently as 2014, while Roger finished 2015 at No. 2 and reached the finals of Wimbledon and the U.S. Open. Like Tom Brady and Bill Belichick of the New England Patriots, who are about to contest their seventh Super Bowl together since 2002, Federer and Nadal never stopped being contenders.
That said, this time they arrived at the Aussie Open not as No. 1 and No. 2 seeds, the way they did in 2009, but as No. 9 (Nadal) and No. 17 (Federer), respectively. Each is coming of an injury-riddled 2016, and when they met for an event at Nadal’s academy in the offseason, they were barely healthy enough for a light hit.
“Both of us, I think, worked very hard to be where we are,” Nadal said on Friday. “Is great. Is great that, again, we are in a moment like this and we are going to have a chance again to enjoy a moment like this.”
Once Rafa and Roger are introduced on Sunday, and the crowd’s opening ovation fades, what’s likely to happen on the court? Federer and Nadal both survived five-set semifinals, and both did it the same way, by bouncing back from a fourth-set loss and finding another, somewhat surprising gear in the fifth. Because of the Australian Open’s cravenly illogical semifinal schedule, Nadal will have 24 hours less rest than Federer. But he’ll still have a day off, a fact that Rafa deemed “fair enough.” The last time these two met in the final, Nadal had played a five-hour match against Fernando Verdasco in the second semi, but he was OK to go five again two days later.
Federer has cited the faster courts in Melbourne as a reason that he likes his chances better in this match that he did in that one, and the surface does seem to have helped the game’s attacking players over the last two weeks. But Nadal has obviously adjusted to—or just ignored—any shift in court speed without much trouble. Each man has been thoroughly tested along the way. This is the first time Federer has beaten three Top 10 players—Tomas Berdych, Kei Nishikori and Stan Wawrinka—en route to a major final, and he survived two fifth sets over the course of four days. Nadal also survived two fifth sets, against Alexander Zverev and Grigor Dimitrov, and beat No. 3 seed Milos Raonic in straights. Both should feel confident in their ability to win a deciding set in the final.
All else being equal, the way it seems to be, that leaves the matchup itself. And that makes Nadal the favorite. He leads Federer 23-11 in their head to head, has won five of their last six and is 3-0 in their Aussie Open meetings.
Federer did win their last match, on indoor hard courts in Basel in 2015, but the dynamic between them has always favored Rafa. His lefty topspin and sidespin into Federer’s one-handed backhand has been tough for the Swiss to counter, on any court. Nadal may also be helped by the fact that he just finished playing five sets with Dimitrov, whose game was famously modeled on Federer’s.
To change that dynamic, Federer will obviously need to serve well, do some SABR rattling on his return, and otherwise pressure Rafa on the baseline. In their 2012 semi here, Federer got off to a lightning-fast start, but he lost focus and confidence as Nadal sunk his teeth into the match. Federer has to know that Rafa will make a run in this one as well, but he can’t back off or abandon his attacking game plan because of it.
Just seeing Nadal and Federer in this setting again should be reward enough for most tennis fans. But I expect they’ll give us a lot more than just their names and reputations. As they’ve showed us over the last two weeks, they can still play with—and play better than—anyone.