When Roger Federer was taken to five sets by his compatriot Stan Wawrinka in the first men’s semi-final on Thursday, many of us thought it was a huge advantage for whoever he would face in the final. We wondered what Federer, who is 35 and coming off a six-month break from competitive tennis following knee surgery last year, had left in the tank.

Would his knee, which has given him some trouble this fortnight and led him to take an injury timeout before the fifth set against Wawrinka, be able to withstand the pressure of back to back five setters in the quarters and semis? Would he recover in time for the final, especially if it was to be against his archrival Rafa Nadal?

By 1.00 am on Saturday morning in Melbourne, that question receded as another arose. How on earth could Nadal recover after his gruelling five set semi-final against Grigor Dimitrov, a match that lasted four hours and fifty-six minutes. Having left everything he had – mental and physical – out there on the court that night, what could Nadal possibly have left for the final? Even though he lost, what Dimitrov managed to do with his gallant effort in that semi-final was to complicate the narrative of what will be the 35th encounter between the two players.


The Nadal supremacy

Historically, their results when playing one another have been lopsided. Nadal leads Federer 23 to 11 overall, 9 to 2 in Slams, and 6 to 2 in Slam finals. The last time they met in a Grand Slam was right here, at the Australian Open semi-finals in 2014, when Nadal won in straight sets. Their head-to-head record has been the one blemish on Federer’s resume and has arguably prevented him from being declared the greatest of all time. While Federer fans like to point out that most of Nadal’s victories (13 of them) have come on his beloved clay, the fact is that he also has a 9 to 7 record on hard courts, the surface the Australian Open is played on.

However, Federer himself said this week that the losses to Nadal on clay early in his career impacted him psychologically. Time and again, we have seen Federer in his prime, almost invincible against other players, crumble against Nadal. Despite his astonishing credentials and his almost superhuman skills, Federer seemed completely unable to solve the Nadal puzzle. Tennis fans will remember the touching moment after the 2009 men’s final, when Federer, after losing a tough five setter, burst into tears at the trophy presentation. It was Nadal who went up to him and put his arm around him, and whispered something in his ears to help him regain his composure. But Federer’s tears told the real story of their rivalry. If he was Superman, Nadal was kryptonite.


FedEx has a day’s advantage, but can he make it count?

The fact is that Federer always struggled to deal with Nadal’s lefty serve and heavy topspin. Tennis is about matchups, and this one has heavily favoured Nadal over the years. Add to that the mental pressure of playing someone who has your number, and it’s not difficult to see the enormous task ahead of the Swiss legend who is going for his 18th major title. Nadal himself is looking to break the tie with Pete Sampras and claim his 15th Grand Slam title.

It would be fair to say that if Nadal had defeated Dimitrov in three quick sets on Friday night, he would have been the firm favourite for the championship match. However, that did not happen. That match not only went the distance but was also a draining affair with both men fighting hard for every point. It was an epic, physical battle. What’s more, Nadal will have had just one day off between the semi-final and the final, whereas Federer has had two. Only at the Australian Open are the two men’s semis played on separate days, giving one player a likely advantage, even though Nadal graciously said about that after his match, “Fair enough...I cannot complain about that.”

Another factor that might impact the result is that unlike other years, the courts this year are playing much faster, which has allowed players to play more offense. In fact, there has been some talk in the men’s locker room that the courts have been deliberately sped up to help Federer. The tournament director Craig Riley dismissed the bizarre rumours, insisting that nothing has been changed to suit any particular player. But the increased speed of the court at Rod Laver arena will help Federer’s game. Ironically, even if Nadal is weary, it will be the Spaniard who is likely to try and slow points down and lengthen the baselines rallies. Federer will prefer to move forward and play aggressively to shorten the points.


All the makings of a classic

Back in 2009, when Nadal beat Federer in that emotional final, he had come from playing another marathon five-set match against Fernando Verdasco in the semi-final. Of course, that was eight years ago, when he was only 22. Now, at 30, with one of the most well-worn bodies in sport, the task is more formidable. But he does have a new coach to help him, former world number one Carlos Moya, who has altered their practice sessions and infused new energy in the Nadal camp.

In the end it could well come down to two things: Nadal’s physical fitness following the semi-final, and Federer’s mental belief after all those heartbreaking losses to his nemesis. Keep in mind that Federer’s leg might not be feeling perfect either, which could cause him some problems, especially if the match goes long. If Federer serves exceptionally well, starts out very strong, and leaps to a quick lead by winning the first set, he has a decent shot at avenging the 2009 loss here. But, given all the factors, and their history, I give a slight edge to Nadal. If the match goes to five sets, Nadal, with his superior belief, is almost certain to win.

Whatever the outcome, here’s hoping for another classic between two players whose contrasting styles of play and astonishing records have made their rivalry one of the most beloved in all of sport.