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LIVE BLOG: Rafael Nadal vs. Roger Federer, Australian Open

Jan 24th 2014

The 33rd meeting between the two archrivals, and their third at the Australian Open, unfolds tonight.  Will Roger Federer conquer Rafael Nadal at a major other than Wimbledon for the first time?

Roger Federer

Prematch:  Check out Nick Nemeroff's article elsewhere on this site for a preview of the keys to this latest edition of the sport's most famous matchup.  One issue to note for Nadal is the status of the blister on his racquet hand, which seemed to disrupt his timing on serve during his quarterfinal.  For Federer, the challenge of defeating Nadal in a best-of-five match for the first time since 2007 looms large.  The Swiss master displayed his vintage brilliance in victories over Jo-Wilfried Tsonga and Andy Murray, but he may need to raise his level even higher and sustain it even longer to keep pace with his relentless nemesis for so long.  Federer won the first set when they met on this court two years ago, also in a semifinal, but Nadal weathered the initial storm to sweep the next three.  He holds a commanding 10-3 lead in their best-of-five encounters, although more of them have come on his favored clay than anywhere else.  More tellingly, Nadal has won his last four meetings with Federer, not losing to him since Indian Wells 2012.  He enters this match as the favorite, but favorites have not always had their way at this Australian Open.  

The match will start at 7:30 PM Melbourne time (3:30 AM ET, 12:30 AM PT).  This page will keep updating with instant analysis after each changeover.  Feel free to share your own insights in the comments below if you like.

Update (7:28 PM):  The match wil start later than expected after an epic final in women's doubles. (Top seeds Sara Errani and Roberta Vinci trailed 5-2 in the final set before storming back to edge third seeds Ekaterina Makarova and Elena Vesnina.)  Will Federer-Nadal XXXIII be worth a slightly longer wait?  No matter where your loyalties lie, I think you know the answer.

Federer 2-1*:  As he almost always does in their meetings, Federer opens on serve.  This tactic leaves each man in his comfort zone, for Nadal prefers to receive first.  There is little comfortable for the Spaniard in Federer's first service game, however, when he puts only two of five returns in play.  For his part, Federer puts only two of four returns in play as Nadal also cruises through his service game.  Neither man has found much rhythm from the baseline, so points are more staccato than usual in their matches.  Clean play but nothing for the highlight reel yet.

Federer 3-2*:  A battle of drop shots with both men at the net goes Federer's way, perhaps a tribute to the influence of Stefan Edberg.  In trouble on serve, Nadal measures his backhand pass down the line to perfection.  He digs out of a 0-30 hole with some help from his opponent, off the mark on two mid-court balls.  Federer shows his determination to be aggressive by stepping around a second-serve return to pulverize a forehand winner, though.  He'll hope for that memory to linger in Nadal's head when he hits a second serve at a more crucial moment.  His service game unfolds routinely, by contrast.

Federer 4-3*:  Delivering first serves nearly as hard as Federer is, Nadal registers his second love hold and the third for the two men combined.  Conventional wisdom underlines the importance of the seventh game, although the reason for that is unclear.  At any rate, Nadal must subscribe to that theory, for his intensity on return escalates.  Federer earns fewer free points and gets burned by passing shots on consecutive points.  Nadal's ability to neutralize his rival's forward movement will go a long way toward winning this semifinal.  He earns two break points but can convert neither under pressure from the net-rushing Federer.  The Swiss looks committed to that tactic, which allows him to take time away from Nadal.  An ace carries Federer to the hold.  How important will that escape prove in this set?

Federer 5-4*:  Federer wrong-foots Nadal in his forehand corner, making his service game more precarious.  Punishing groundstroke depth from the world No. 1 fends off danger during one of the set's longest rallies.  In general, the Swiss has sustained more pressure on the serve than the Spaniard has.  A double fault opens the door as his unforced error count climbs to twice Nadal's rate.  Federer's one-handed backhand always has been his Achilles heel in this matchup against the high-bouncing topspin of Nadal's forehand.  That shot breaks down twice in three points, giving the Spaniard his third break point.  Steeling himself not to give an inch, Federer blasts an inside-in forehand to keep his nose in front.

Federer 6-5*:  With his back to the wall in this set, Nadal donates a pair of loose groundstroke errors.  Fortunately for him, Federer sprays a routine forehand long.  Not the finest passage of play from either man in that game, although Nadal's ace makes a fine finish for 5-5.  Federer closes out his (more routine) game with an ace as well.  The two men stand on the verge of a first-set tiebreak, recalling their semifinal at the Australian Open two years ago.

Nadal takes charge in longer baseline exchanges to start the set's final game, using his depth to jerk his rival along the baseline.  The game becomes somewhat adventurous after Nadal led 40-0, but that's too big a lead to erase.  To a first-set tiebreak they go, for just the fourth time in 33 meetings but the second time at the Australian Open.  

Despite the dominance of each man on serve, the tiebreak starts with a pair of mini-breaks.  Federer had won all three of the first-set tiebreaks that they had played previously, although he ultimately won only one of those matches.  Perhaps it is just as well for him, then, that he loses his first three service points of this tiebreak to fall behind 5-1.  Nadal flirts with letting his archrival slip off the hook in a scratchy sequence when Federer closes to 5-4.  Still, the tiebreak and set remain on the world No. 1's racquet.  A backhand unforced error after a medium-length rally hands Nadal the set.  Federer never has rallied from losing the first set to the Spaniard at a major, so his work is cut out now.

Nadal wins the first set 7-6(4)

Nadal 7-6 2-1*:  More unforced errors leak from the Swiss star's racquet earlyy in the second set.  Nadal takes a medical timeout to receive treatment for his blisters after he holds in the first game.  The loss of rhythm may have contributed to errant strokes off the Spaniard's racquet in Federer's first service game.  But he holds at love to keep the match without breaks.  Still no break points faced by Nadal.

Nadal 7-6 3-2*:  How many bullets can Federer dodge?  A stingy Nadal keeps hammering away at his backhand with pace and depth, forcing three more break points.  As he has done so well throughout his career, Federer plays fearlessly at those moments. A first serve down the center stripe erases the first, and audacious forehands the next two.  Although Federer does survive the game with the help of a Hawkeye review, how long can he withstand this pressure without making any inroads on Nadal's serve?  A second straight love hold for Nadal is his fourth in nine service games.

Nadal 7-6 5-2*:  On cue, up comes a seventh break point after Federer can't handle a dipping Nadal backhand pass.  The battle between the Swiss master's deft touch at the net and the Spanish star's raw power from the baseline has produced a series of aesthetically scintillating exchanges.  As usually is the case in the contemporary era, power prevails.  Nadal earns the first break of the match on his eighth break point, pounding a clean inside-out winner off his forehand.  Dropping only one point on his next service game, he cruises toward the end of the second set.

A lull seems to unfold in Federer's next service game, which he holds with little resistance.  For the first time, Nadal grows edgy in his next service game.  He overhits a pair of routine groundstrokes, one on each side, to open it, as Federer barks in recognition of the opportunity.  As quickly as the window opens, however, it slams shut.  Nadal strikes two of his crispest down-the-line forehands and continues with his bread-and-butter tactic of serving to Federer's backhand.  A netted return on set point leaves the world No. 1 with a two-set lead and not a single break point faced.  

The writing would seem to be on the wall with no surge on the horizon from Federer.  But he rallied from nowhere in the same circumstances to force a fifth set during their Wimbledon classic in 2008, and of course he came all the way back to win from that position in Miami nine long years ago.  Nadal has defeated Federer in straight sets at a major only once (Roland Garros just before that Wimbledon duel).  Are we headed for another anticlimax and his fifth straight victory in their rivalry?

Nadal wins the second set 6-3

Nadal 7-6 6-3 2*-1:  There's not a lot of life left in Federer, who sprays a forehand off the net cord at 15-30 to fall behind double break point.  It's hard to believe that he can rally, and someone as clear-eyed as he is probably senses that too.  This tournament has witnessed Federer's revival in many ways, but he still doesn't have any magic bullets to halt Nadal, or even trouble him for long.  It's been remarkable how easily Nadal can stay within his comfort zone while producing sufficiently steady, relentless tennis to fluster his rival.

Nadal 7-6 6-3 2*-3:  Well, hold the phone for a moment anyway.  A sloppy service game by Nadal donates his first break of the match and throws Federer a lifeline.  The Swiss didn't do anything extraordinary in the game as his rival suffered a rare meltdown.  Federer threatens to fritter away the momentum shift, though, with a series of forehand unforced errors that leaves him muttering to himself.  Seemingly unable to pull the trigger on the coup de grace, Nadal spurns two more break points, one with a woefully netted return.  

Nadal 7-6 6-3 4*-3: While Nadal rights the ship with a more disciplined hold, Federer still looks flat and uninspired.  From 30-15, he sprays a forehand wide, dumps a backhand from inside the service line into the net, and slaps a mid-court forehand off a net cord.  The ball sails over the baseline, moving Nadal within two games of his first straight-sets win over the Swiss at a non-clay major.

The emotions have been relatively muted from both men throughout this match, and from their player boxes.  Nothing changes in that regard as the finish line approaches for Nadal in a more routine win than anyone would have expected.  He benefits from two muffed Federer backhands to escape a 30-30 situation on serve.  Federer survives the first match point on his own serve but surrenders on the second.  As he did in their previous two Australian Open meetings, Federer ends the match with a forehand unforced error over the baseline.  

Nadal wins 7-6(4) 6-3 6-3

Postmatch:  Federer still has not conquered Nadal at a major since 2007, and it looks increasingly unlikely that he ever will.  Despite the addition of Stefan Edberg to his team, he showed no new tactics that could reverse the balance of power in this matchup.  Flashes of his vintage brilliance flickered through the night, but the outcome never seemed seriously in doubt because of Nadal's dominance on serve.  The best days of this rivalry are behind us, but its twilight stages should not overshadow the greatness that it once produced.  Nor should it overshadow the sharp improvement in Federer's form during this fortnight with a semifinal run that included two victories over top-10 opponents.

Nadal advances to face Stanislas Wawrinka in the final.  He will be heavily favored in that encounter, having won all 26 of their sets on a variety of surfaces against this first-time major finalist.  If he should win on Saturday, Nadal will become the first man ever to win at least two titles at every major.

Thanks for joining us tonight, and come back tomorrow for a live blog of the women's final!