The biggest question facing Roger Federer in the Australian Open final is not whether, aged 35 years, he can win his 18th grand slam title. It is whether he can beat Rafael Nadal. The man he has not beaten since 2007 in a grand slam.
The man he trails 2-9 in all slams, 2-6 in slam finals.
The man who first beat him in a major at his turf, centre court at Wimbledon in 2008 and hasn’t lost to him since in the big four. Aside from the two Wimbledon finals in 2006 and 2007, where he prevailed over a young Rafa in the finals, Roger has not won a slam after beating the Spaniard in any round.
As Rafa once told me, the secret of their rivalry being so intensely loved by tennis fans is because of their contrasting styles. "That’s what makes it interesting and different," he said.
Perhaps, that is also what has been Roger’s undoing in this mano-a-mano contest.
|Six long years since they last met on Rafa’s favourite clay at French Open 2011 in the final. Photo: AP
Rafa’s lefty, top-spin heavy, baseline slugging style has been historically difficult for Roger to overcome. He trails the Spaniard 11-23 in head to head meetings. In a grand slam over five sets, it becomes harder to make the "matador" go away for the even the "master".
The dream final is not decided by any stretch. It will be worthy of the wait. Six long years since they last met on Rafa’s favourite clay at French Open 2011 in the final.
In the years since, Novak Djokovic was the top dog, Andy Murray and Stan Wawrinka won three slams each. Also since then, Roger has only won one more major while Rafa won in Paris three times out of five, which in itself is unprecendented since his reign there and one US open.
Last two years, he didn’t win any title. 2015 was the first year he had gone without even one slam since 2005.
Federer has featured in only three slam finals since.
So safe to say, it has been a long time and no one saw this coming, even if fans had dreamt of it. So long after their last encounter in a finale, it is tough to predict how it will go. Federer is looking as fresh as ever, after a 6-month injury layoff.
If there were any doubts over Rafa, they were crushed in his five-hour marathon win over Grigor Dimitrov in the semis.
It’s almost as if the clock has been reset, we are back in time when the two ruled the roost. Their age and fitness are not a concern.
But has Federer found an answer to Rafa’s game? This question has been asked before and we have seen glimpses of the answers. But never enough to see him win.
His backhand looks as good as ever right now and that will be the edge he needs against Rafa’s blistering forehand with which he will keep trying to test Roger on his backhand side, pushing him out of the court. We saw that against Dimitrov too leading to errors from the Bulgarian.
Roger’s serve too will be a great weapon earning him cheap points. The closer the match and rallies get, the harder it will become for him. Roger knows, better than anyone else the shots Rafa possesses, and how hard it is for him or anyone to get past those.
Add to that his mental grit and a "never-say-die" attitude, and Rafa becomes almost unbeatable, as he was, when in top shape.
Nadal has also shown the will to come in to the net more like against Milos Raonic in the quarters and that is something he will look to do against Federer as well.
The Swiss has talked about a "nothing to lose mentality". Certainly at this stage of his career, that sets him free from any self-inflicted baggage.
If he can mentally not get bogged down against his nemesis, who knows anything can happen.
For the meantime, sit back and relax. Any result is a great result. Records for both to achieve and nothing to lose for the fans.