Sometimes it seems that Roger Federer was put on this earth not so much to blow away the all-time Grand Slam singles title record than to make his all-time rival look good. Federer did it again Thursday at the Australian Open, losing to Rafael Nadal in the semifinals, 6-7 (5), 6-2, 7-6 (5), 6-4.
This match appeared to give Federer a precious opportunity to fend off critics who were continually harping on Nadal's (now) 18-9 lead in their rivalry, particularly the Grand Slam component, which is now 8-2 for Nadal. But, as Federer fans might have said, this was not clay. And Federer embarked on his quest Down Under without having lost a match since the semifinals of the U.S. Open last September. In their last meeting, Nadal managed to collect just three games in a 6-3, 6-0 beatdown at the ATP World Tour Finals.
But this was still Nadal, and for Federer that is an enormous problem.
The pattern in this rivalry has settled into a painful one for Federer and his minions. Nadal seems to perform his due diligence, lurking and somehow knowing that when push comes to shove, Federer won't be able to sustain the kind of brilliance that can make him look so dangerous. Is this a mental thing? A tactical or strategic thing? Probably a little bit of all three. The salient fact here is that Federer repeatedly found himself in the driver's seat but always slid across the bench and allowed Nadal to take over the wheel.
Federer won the first set 7-6, playing extremely tight, controlled tennis. He showed a relatively new look, too-working Nadal's backhand patiently and effectively until he had an opening to pull the trigger with a down-the-line forehand and attack. This is the kind of thing Novak Djokovic does so effectively against Nadal, which made it doubly mystifying when, as the match went on, Federer more or less abandoned the strategy.
I'm sure this isn't a conscious thing on Federer's part, but that makes no difference. The bottom line is that Federer's impulsive, creative, mix-it-up style almost always blows up in his face when he's matched with Nadal.
Federer surrendered the momentum he gained in that artfully played first set (ESPN's Patrick McEnroe put it very nicely when he said that Federer, playing up on the baseline, was "smothering" Rafa) when he failed to consolidate a break in the first game of the second set. In all fairness to Federer, Nadal snapped to life after the break, but this point also marked a shift away from the successful tactics employed by Federer in the first set.
Nadal's ability to simply hang in there, biding his time, came into play. He broke Federer for 4-2 with a whistling backhand pass down the line, posted a quick hold, and broke Federer again to win the set with surprising ease.
Given that the winner of the third set has won all five matches when the men had previously split the first two, the fourth set felt almost like a formality. Still, the men produced some truly glorious tennis and the occasional break opportunity that neither man could convert. At 4-all, though, Nadal struck in signature fashion. He made a remarkable forehand pass off a terrific forehand blast to the corner, and went to his reliable heavy forehand-to-backhand set play to force an error for the break. Federer made Nadal work through three deuces before capitulating with a forehand error.
On this night of blown opportunities, Federer was beaten by Nadal - but undone by his own genius.