Tennis: Federer runs out of steam as Nadal cruises into final
For Roger Federer, there was one saving grace about his semi-final defeat to Rafael Nadal: at least he did not have to go through the agony of a trophy presentation afterwards.
Three years ago, these men met in a five-set final here in Melbourne. And after Nadal had pulled out another eye-bulging, fist-pumping victory to lift the Norman Brookes Challenge Cup, Federer dissolved into floods of tears.
His response yesterday was more measured. "I prefer to walk off this way rather than having to go through the ceremony after losing," he said. "When you look at it, I haven't lost in five months, so it's not that bad.
"What's important is the reaction. Where do I go from here? You start planning the trips, planning the preparations and you have a good reaction like I had after the US Open."
Federer's silky-smooth form since last September has brought him three successive titles and should, indeed, provide some reassurance after yesterday's let-down.
At the same time, however, it must be a concern to be so note-perfect on the smaller stages, but forget his lines at the Grand Slams. It is almost the sort of dichotomy we have come to associate with Andy Murray.
Despite his 16 Grand Slams, Federer is in danger of becoming a three-set specialist. In the major tournaments, he continues to crush lesser opposition in the early stages -- another parallel with Murray -- but the twin talents of Nadal and Novak Djokovic keep colluding to deny him at the death.
Part of the explanation may lie in his physical endurance, which is perhaps not what it once was. Nadal gave a hint of this yesterday when he suggested Federer was "a little bit tired."
Nadal also explained the distinction between his last match against Federer -- a 6-3 6-0 defeat at London's O2 Arena that ended in under an hour -- and this one, which he won 6-7 6-2 7-6 6-4.
"When you play indoors, when you play best of three sets, he plays aggressive," said Nadal. "Playing best of five outdoor, you normally have more time to do things and to try to find solutions to the problem that he's causing."
Nadal's solution yesterday was an unexpected one. He came under savage early attack, losing his opening service game and struggling to deal with Federer's net-play. But rather than firing a stream of looping balls to the backhand he mixed it up and managed to disrupt one of the greatest shots in tennis, the mighty Federer forehand.
Time after time, Federer kept catching the top of the net-tape as he strove to find the penetration and pace that would stop Nadal. Flat strokes may rush through the court quicker, but they must also be hit with microscopic precision and Federer had an alarming 63 unforced errors by the end.
For a sense of the effort put in by Nadal, you only had to look at the point -- halfway through the second set -- when a Federer volley sent him scampering out wide to his left, so wide that on most ordinary courts he would have already headbutted the fence. Most of the spectators assumed the point was over -- so did Federer himself. But then Nadal did the unthinkable, wrapping his racket around the ball and firing a vicious angled cross`-court winner.
It was the highlight of another magnificent match in this great rivalry, which now stands at 18-9 in Nadal's favour, and 8-2 in Grand Slams. As Melbourne celebrated Australia Day, Federer was ruing another reverse in a tournament he has won four times. The only mercy was that he was able to mourn alone. (© Daily Telegraph, London).
Australian Open, Live, Eurosport, 7.45am