Tennis: 'Fedal' reunion worth the wait

By Simon Briggs

Rafael Nadal has a 23-11 head-to-head lead over enduring rival Federer. Photo / AP
Rafael Nadal has a 23-11 head-to-head lead over enduring rival Federer. Photo / AP

The Australian Open has hit the mother lode. Melbourne will be treated to the people's final, Rafael Nadal against Roger Federer.

In its sheer unexpected glory, this reunion of "Fedal" feels like the most romantic scenario tennis has thrown up in decades. Despite the awkwardness of Australia's time-zones, the match has the potential to break all viewing records.

Only last year, we were beginning to see Federer and Nadal as relics from a different era. Each time they suffered an early defeat at a slam, the sense of shock grew a little smaller.

But that was before the Big Two opted to step off the tour carousel and refresh their creaking bodies. The effects have been seen over the past 48 hours. First Federer outlasted his compatriot Stan Wawrinka in Thursday's five-set struggle, and then Nadal was simply indomitable on Friday against an equally inspired Dimitrov, also winning in five sets.

Tonight's decider will be the ninth Grand Slam final Federer and Nadal have contested, with Nadal holding a 6-2 lead over the Swiss maestro.

For the intensity of its combat, and the many changes of momentum, the Nadal-Dimitrov semifinal will go down as the highlight of a memorable fortnight so far. Although, with luck, there could be even better to come.

How, then, are the odds stacked going into tonight's blockbuster? The bookmakers have Nadal as slight favourite, and understandably so. He has a 23-11 head-to-head lead over Federer, and the fact that he spent 4hr 56min on court on Friday will not necessarily be decisive.

In the 2009 semifinal here, Nadal spent 5hr 14min subduing Fernando Verdasco, and still ground out a five-set win over Federer just two days later.

Asked about the potential disadvantages of the scheduling, Nadal remained philosophical, even though he will have only 40 hours to recover while Federer can enjoy the best part of three days' rest. "For me it is fair enough," he said.

Still, the Nadal of 2017 is considerably more weatherbeaten than the 2009 model, and it was striking to see how gingerly he hobbled out of the interview room after performing his media duties. His physio will have tired hands by the time the weekend is done. On the upside for Nadal, he has just spent five hours having what cricketers call a net.

Dimitrov is known as "Baby Fed", because of the similarities between his game and Federer's. In tactical terms, then, Friday's semifinal battle will provide the perfect preparation for the final - unless Federer is bold enough to deliver the repeated net-rushes that Dimitrov was too wary to attempt.

Roger Federer is seeking his first Grand Slam title since Wimbledon in 2012. Photo / AP
Roger Federer is seeking his first Grand Slam title since Wimbledon in 2012. Photo / AP

"For sure we never thought that we had the chance to be, again, in a final," said Nadal, "and especially in the first of the year. Both of us worked very hard to be where we are. It is great that, again, we are in a moment like this.

"Now I go back to the locker room and say thanks to my team for the support, then just try to recover. After that, try to do all the things the right way to be ready for Sunday."

With Federer and Nadal both returning from injuries, and neither having won a major since mid-2014, a ninth Grand Slam final between two of the most dominant men in the sport was considered an extreme longshot at Melbourne Park.

Nadal, who had a couple of months off to rest his injured left wrist after an up-and-down 2016 that started with a shocking first-round exit in Australia, was ranked No9.

He reached a low point, he admitted, after having to withdraw from the French Open, where he has won nine of his 14 major titles.

"I remember myself crying on the car coming back to hotel," Nadal said. "That was a tough moment."

Federer, off for six months with an injured left knee, was ranked No 17. He reached the semifinals in Australia and Wimbledon last year, but didn't play the other majors.

He hasn't won a Grand Slam title since Wimbledon in 2012, has an 11-23 record at tour-level against Nadal, and has only won two of the eight major finals he's played against the left-handed Spaniard.

- Daily Telegraph UK

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