As Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal won match after match at the Australian Open, making their unlikely way through opposite sides of the draw, tennis fans couldn’t help but look ahead.
Could the two old rivals, almost six years on from their last meeting in a Grand Slam final, possibly meet for one more match for the ages in Melbourne?
Federer and Nadal each had to survive epic five-set matches in the semifinals, but they did not disappoint. And now, the dream final tennis fans had hoped for when favourites Andy Murray and Novak Djokovic were upset in the first week is going to happen in the Rod Laver Arena.
What’s at stake is bigger than just Federer-Nadal XXXV, or even the Australian Open title. There’s also history to play for: If Federer wins, he’ll add an 18th Grand Slam trophy to his career record total, putting distance between himself and his rivals. If Nadal wins his 15th, he’ll pass Pete Sampras for sole possession of second place on the all-time list, and pull tantalisingly close to Federer’s tally.
“The historical context of that match, whether it becomes 17-15 with the French Open next, or 18-14, that’s such a big difference in the historical march for both those guys,” former US Open champion Andy Roddick said in Melbourne this week.
“That might be, as far as history goes, the biggest match ever in Australian Open history and maybe Grand Slam history. What’s at stake there is beyond what pretty much any player can comprehend.”
The magnitude of the moment is not lost on the players themselves.
“Rafa’s definitely presented me with the biggest challenge in the game,” Federer said after his semi-final win over US Open champion Stan Wawrinka. “I’m happy we’ve had some epic, epic battles over the years, and of course, it would be unreal to play here.”
Nadal said neither player could have imagined making the final of the year’s first Grand Slam after coming back from their respective injuries in 2016 – Federer, his knee; Nadal, his wrist. Both men took time off last season and had difficult draws in Melbourne because of their lower rankings.
“For me, it’s a privilege,” Nadal said. “It’s a very, very special thing, I think, for both of us to be in the final of a major again, have another chance to compete against each other after a couple of years having some problems.”
Nadal has dominated Federer in their head-to-head match-ups – he has a 23-11 record overall and has won nine of their 11 matches in Grand Slams.
But Federer likes his chances on the hard courts at the Australian Open this year – he believes they are playing faster than in years past, which suits his game better than Nadal’s.
Federer should also be fresher for the final, having spent far less time on court than Nadal during the tournament (13 hours, 40 minutes versus 19 hours) and having an extra day to rest in between the semi-final and final. Both men have survived two five-setters, but Nadal’s were far longer and more draining.
Federer may also have the edge confidence-wise. Nadal’s results have dipped dramatically in recent years and he’s struggled to play well against the top players. He hasn’t been past the quarter-finals of a Grand Slam since the 2014 French Open, also the last major he won.
Nadal, though, remains one of the fittest players in the game and is certainly hungry for major success again after years of disappointing losses.
Whoever wins, the match is sure to be memorable. A massive crowd is likely at Melbourne Park, as well, after organisers decided to open the 7,500-seat Margaret Court Arena for fans to watch the match on a giant screen.
“I just know that two of the greatest players of tennis are going to square off on Sunday,” Grigor Dimitrov said after his nearly five-hour loss to Nadal in the semifinals.
“And it’s going to be [an] amazing match.”