MELBOURNE: The score is uncomfortable: 22-10 to Nadal overall. The margins are not close: 8-2 in slams for the Spaniard. The divide is clear: 2-0 to the leftie at this Open. If the weight of history is everything, old Rog should leave a packed suitcase behind in the hotel before Friday's match. But, and maybe this is merely indulgence, maybe it is a romantic hope for an equal encounter, but there is a keener edge to this duel.
Rafa is favourite, he's always favourite, but this match doesn't seem some routine exercise in nostalgia which is what this rivalry has become. Last four matches, Federer wins a single set. Same leftie forehand spinning at same bewildering rpm to same elegant yet ineffective rightie backhand. Same result.
Except this isn't the same Federer. Just isn't. So shut up about retirement, ok? Not as good he once was, but better than he recently has been. Healed back, freer feet, clearer mind, cleaner serve, committed aggression.
He got passed in matches, he charged; he got lobbed he sprinted in. Professor Edberg was watching, mind you. Only two break points given to Murray; one against Tsonga; and broken once between them. Sixty-six times to the net against Murray (74 per cent won); 41 times to net against Tsonga (83 per cent won). Nice.
Rafa, he's hurt. Rafa, he'll just shrug. He does pain for a living. He wipes it away like sweat because it's there every day. Always knee, sometimes blister on foot, now palm. It's just another challenge, no?
Apparently Rafa's not been Rafa this year, but last I looked he'd lost a single set this tournament. Those kids (Dimitrov, Nishikori) tried to bully back, and he hit limp forehands, but this is a slam, a semi and Fed. He just elevates and accelerates. You can't say he wants this tournament because he wants every tournament. He has no let-up, no low gear, no give, no memory of what went before. He's just there, ready, with everything.
But this Federer net play, this occasional serve and volley, this intent, this is the Swiss' only hope: for the year, for his age and perhaps for Nadal. Mats Wilander, resident guru, says the other day: "If Federer feels more comfortable when coming in, then Nadal has to pull the trigger early and he has alter his game a fraction and that's what Federer is looking for."
The Swiss has to believe by changing the pattern he can change the result.
But can he be so efficient, so consistent, so focused on break points, so free of passivity? Can he believe when it's 5-6? Can he close? Can tactic beat psychology? Questions, questions, questions. But here's one answer. The person I'd like to see win the Open. Stan the Superb Man.