Our man at Melbourne Park previews the Australian Open semi-final clash between Rafael Nadal and Roger Federer
By Tim Clement - Twitter: @SkyTimClement. Last Updated: 24/01/14 8:34am
Rafael Nadal and Roger Federer: Set to clash for a place in the Australian Open final
A resurgent Roger Federer will look to halt Rafael Nadal in his prime when the pair renew their iconic rivalry at the Australian Open on Friday.
The duo headed Down Under on the back of contrasting campaigns, with Federer slipping down sixth in the world amid a flurry of worrying loses while Nadal returned from injury to claim 10 titles, including two majors, and recapture top spot in the rankings.
Federer, with idol Stefan Edberg in his corner, has looked a rejuvenated force, though, beating both Jo-Wilfried Tsonga and Andy Murray impressively and dominating with his aggressive net play.
The semi-final clash between two players boasting 30 Grand Slams between them has the feel of a final to it, especially given the fact the other last-four meeting contains two players pursuing a maiden major title.
Nadal is already considered odds-on to lift the trophy after three-time defending champion Novak Djokovic crashed out at the quarter-final stage, with Sky Bet making Federer 11/8 outsider to make the final.
Nadal has been troubled by a blister on his left hand
While the season's first Grand Slam title is motivation aplenty alone, the outcome is likely to have a significant bearing on who will be considered the game's greatest ever player.
Federer currently boasts the most major titles with 17 but the 'King of Clay' can cut his lead to three by triumphing on Rod Laver Arena, while further titles at Roland Garros are inevitable,
It would also make him a multiple winner at all four Grand Slams, something yet to be achieved in the Open era.
The Spaniard boasts an overwhelming head-to-head record over Federer, having won 22 of their 32 encounters and, while a significant proportion of those wins have come on clay, he also has a winning record on hard courts with eight victories from 14 meetings.
The five-set format at majors has also heavily favoured the younger Nadal, winning their last five meetings, including both meetings on Rod Laver Arena.
However, the 27-year-old has been forced to battle in his last two matches, a challenge he has typical risen to, against more aggressive players in Kei Nishikori and Grigor Dimitrov.
While those two were overawed Nadal's relentlessness, Federer's challenge will be to remain effective in his aggressive approach and somehow consistently penetrate the most stubborn of defences.
Federer has shown a new aggressive approach
The other big task for the Swiss star is coping with Nadal's left-handed top-spin forehand lassoing balls high up at his backhand - a defining tactic in the pair's rivalry.
Then, at 32, there's the physical demand of keeping pace when the Spaniard inevitable turns points in mini battles of attrition.
Federer's movement has been arguably the biggest improvement from last year, when he was hampered by a niggling back problem, but he would certainly be up against it if the match goes the distance.
It has actually been Nadal who has had the physical problems at Melbourne Park, with a nasty blister developing in the centre of the palm of his left hand, requiring him to wear strapping.
If the 'King of Clay' is still able to play his best tennis and keep the majority of the battles at the baseline then it looks like a highly improbably task for the Swiss star.
However, if he can keep the exchanges short, continue to rack up easy points on serve and take his chances at the net then there's a chance Federer can upset the form book.