Novak Djokovic may be the No. 1 player in the world, but there’s nothing quite like a Grand Slam matchup between Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal to remind casual tennis fans that the 2012 season is underway.
Australian Open fans will be treated to a classic contest between the two most accomplished players on tour when Rafa and Roger go toe-to-toe for the 27th time in Thursday’s semifinals.
Only once prior have the two men met before the final of a major tournament — in the 2005 French Open that began Nadal’s run of six titles in seven years. Federer and Nadal were seeded on the opposite side of every major draw since, until now.
But while the stage may be smaller than it was for their eight Grand Slam final meetings, this matchup won’t lack for excitement.
Federer advanced to his ninth straight Australian Open semifinal by beating Juan Martin del Potro in straight sets, 6-4, 6-3, 6-2. The match was the 1,000 of Federer’s distinguished career.
“It’s a lot of matches and a lot of tennis,” Federer said. “Either I have been around for a long time or I’m extremely fit. You decide which way you want to describe it. But I’m happy.”
Nadal was pushed by Tomas Berdych but rallied for a 6-7 (5), 7-6 (6), 6-4, 6-3 victory in a match that featured its fair share of complaints to the chair umpire.
The Spaniard had a few gripes for his longtime rival, too, ahead of the year’s first major. Earlier this month he criticized Federer for letting other players “burn themselves” by complaining about the grueling schedule and conditions on tour without joining the chorus.
“For him it’s good to say nothing. Everything positive,” Nadal said in comments translated from Spanish. “‘It’s all well and good for me, I look like a gentleman,’ and the rest can burn themselves.”
The momentary rift seemed to disappear the following day when Nadal apologized for his remarks and Federer lauded Nadal for speaking his mind.
“We can’t always agree on everything,” Federer said. “So far it’s always been no problem really. Back in the day he used to say, ‘Whatever Roger decides, I’m fine with.’
“Today he’s much more grown up. He has a strong opinion himself, which I think is great.”
The focus will be on the tennis come Thursday when Federer looks to return to the final he won in 2010 (and 04, 06, 07) and Nadal tries to power his way back to the title he claimed in 2009.
The lone meeting between Rafa and Roger in Melbourne — the 2009 final — lasted 4 hours and 23 minutes with Nadal pulling out a memorable 7-5, 3-6, 7-6 (3), 3-6, 6-2 victory.
Federer was in tears as he accepted his runner-up trophy, a feeling he hopes to avoid this time around.
“I’d like to play Rafa because of our epic match in the final here a few years ago,” Federer said. “It’d like to lpay him again.”
Needless to say, this one will be worth watching.
(The match airs live on ESPN2 on Thursday at 3:30 a.m. EST, so set your DVR.)
More Australian Open coverage:
Australian Open: Scoreboard, schedule of play