Hard reality crushed a fairytale revival at Melbourne Park as a ruthless Rafa Nadal inflicted more Grand Slam agony on Roger Federer with a straight-sets rout on Friday that booked his third Australian Open final.
New coach, new racket and a new broom for Federer amounted to little against the irrepressible Spaniard, who simply dominated to win 7-6(4) 6-3 6-3 on a breezy night at Rod Laver Arena. Not since the 2007 Wimbledon final has Nadal rolled over to his great rival Federer, and his sixth straight win in grand slams over the Swiss was among his most devastating.
Blister, what blister?
Brushing off a crater-like blister on his racket hand, Nadal roared through in just in two hours and 24 minutes and conceded only two break points as he set up the title-decider against Federer’s compatriot and doubles partner at the Beijing Olympics (where the pair won gold), Stanislas Wawrinka.
“I played well tonight. I played probably my best match of the tournament,” Nadal told reporters after reaching his 19th grand slam final, equal second all-time with Ivan Lendl behind Federer.
“So very, very, very happy for this great news that I played my best match in that semi-final against Roger. I hit a few passing shots today that if … you are not quick and playing with confidence, you cannot hit those shots.”
Injury and illness have blighted Nadal’s recent campaigns Down Under, but the rollicking victory put the Spaniard in the box seat for a long-awaited second title after his 2009 triumph at Melbourne Park. For 32-year-old Federer, it was deja vu, and a stinging reality check after an encouraging run.
Slumping to 23-10 in his head-to-head record with Nadal, the loss was his first in straight sets in the majors against the Spaniard since the 2008 French Open, and continued his winless streak against him on grand slam hardcourts, the most democratic of surfaces.
The chip-and-charge game honed under mentor Stefan Edberg had helped him humble Jo-Wilfried Tsonga and fourth seed Andy Murray, but it came crashing head-long into Nadal’s left-hand forehand, invariably coming off second best. There was no succour from the baseline either, as Nadal marshalled his brilliant defences and counter-punched with a dizzying array of winners.
In the face of all evidence, Federer denied the Spaniard had the ability to get into his head. “Not necessarily. I enjoy playing against him because it’s always going to be on centre court, it’s always going to be a big story going into the match,” the 17-times grand slam champion told reporters.
“So that’s kind of what you train hard for. That’s where you want to be. I mean, it’s not as cool when you lose in straight sets.” Then, he added: “Wish I could have won here tonight and then given an all-Swiss final … That’s something I’ll regret, you know, for a long time.”
A runaway victory seemed an absurdity early, though, as the pair parried and probed in the opening games. Although gradually chipping away at Federer’s serve, Nadal’s was impenetrable and he challenged the Swiss to take him down in a tiebreak. Throwing his opponent from side to side, the Spaniard raised his game to play it on his terms, roaring to a 5-1 lead and closing it out when Federer sent an increasingly shaky backhand sailing past the baseline.
Dazed and confused
Rattled, Federer complained to the chair umpire about the Spaniard’s grunting during rallies, as if stifling his opponent’s volume might quell his firepower. An outrageous cross-court passing shot gave Nadal break points at 3-2 in the second set and he smacked an inside-out forehand to leave Federer in deep trouble.
Surviving a small wobble on serve to close out the set, Nadal captured the decisive break in the third at 3-3 and broke the Swiss again to close out the match when shell-shocked Federer shanked a forehand long. Nadal punched his left fist into the night sky and roared in triumph while a demoralised Federer gave a cursory wave before trudging to the exit.
Aptly, 28-year-old Wawrinka, who has long lived in Federer’s shadow, will have a chance to avenge his compatriot’s loss. His impressive run to his first major final has also ensured he will surpass Federer in the world rankings for the first time.