MELBOURNE, Australia — The domination continues.
Rafael Nadal came back from a set down to notch his fifth straight win over Roger Federer at a Slam, beating his rival 6-7 (5), 6-2, 7-6 (5), 6-4 in the semifinals of the Australian Open.
In a scratchy match that rarely saw the two men simultaneously play at their best, Nadal proved again that on the biggest of stages he is consistently able to drag Federer down from the rarefied air where he typically operates. It’s tennis’ equivalent to a backyard brawl. With the pressure on, Federer swung and missed, hitting 63 unforced errors, 36 on his forehand side, and, excluding from the first set, Federer was unable to summon his magic on the big points.
Nadal, who will be trying for his second Australian Open title and 11th major title overall, is now through to his fourth straight Slam final and will face the winner of Friday’s semifinal match between Novak Djokovic and Andy Murray.
Our game-by-game analysis from Melbourne is below.
7:27 a.m. ET | Nadal wins set 6-4, wins match 6-7 (5), 6-2, 7-6 (5), 6-4
Nadal gets nervy serving it out and Federer earns two break points to even the match. On the first break point, Nadal hits a forehand that bounces over off the top of the net cord, Federer hits a forehand, Nadal sends a squash-shot lob that lands on the baseline, and Federer sends the ball wide. That’s bad luck for Federer and after Rafa dodges that bullet, he converts his second match point of the game when Federer sends a forehand long.
Game, set, match, Rafael Nadal. He reaches his fourth straight Slam final and becomes only the fifth man to reach all four Grand Slam finals at least twice. He drops to his knees after the handshake as though he had just won the tournament. A crushing defeat for Roger, who started the match so well but got bullied once Rafa got settled into the match.
7:16 a.m. ET | Nadal leads 5-4
Federer keeps going to the forehand when on his approach shots, and he keeps getting burned. Nadal gets the game to deuce after Federer was 40-30 up and hits an impossibly angled forehand pass to earn a break point. Then Federer sends a backhand wide to drop a huge service game and Nadal will serve for the match.
7:09 a.m. ET | Set tied 4-4
Federer is finally able to get a break point, but misses a forehand. Nadal nails two forehand winners to seal the game. Rafa’s stepping up when he has to right now. It’s easier to do that when you’re up 2 sets to one, so let’s see how Federer responds.
7:03 a.m. ET | Federer leads 4-3
For some reason, Federer keeps coming in on Nadal’s forehand, and that’s like shooting fish in a barrel for the Spaniard. Patrick McEnroe is completely befuddled as to why he sticks with this tactic and I have to agree. He has the stubbornness of a champion but it’s biting him in the end.
But he holds with a nice forehand down the line. Remember this particular shot if he finds his timing on that down-the-line forehand going forward. Sometimes it just takes one good hit on the ball to turn it around.
6:59 a.m. ET | Set tied 3-3
Nadal holds again to even the set. Federer hasn’t had a break point yet in the fourth set.
The last time Federer came back to win the 4th and 5th sets against Nadal was in Miami in 2005. Nadal was a teenager then. He’s got a tough task now and even though he’s serving first, Nadal can see the finish line. He’s playing with more confidence and conviction than Roger right now.
6:54 a.m. ET | Federer leads 3-2
Federer is walking a tightrope on his service games. He tries to go up the line with his forehand and nets it, and on the next point Federer decides to come in on Nadal’s forehand and the Spaniard fires it past him to earn two break points. Federer saves the first, and then, learning his lesson, wisely approaches on Nadal’s backhand to save the second. Federer goes on to hold when Nadal sinks a crosscourt backhand into the net.
Federer has to attack that backhand right now but it seems like he’s missing a little bit of confidence in his forehand to consistently do damage and pull Rafa wide.
6:48 a.m. ET | Set tied 2-2
We’re still waiting for both men to be at their best at the same time. Both Federer and Nadal are missing on very makeable shots (at least by their standards). Nadal holds to stay on serve in the fourth set.
6:44 a.m. ET | Federer leads 2-1
Federer has hit seven winners in the fourth set, compared to three for Nadal. He gets the hold again and his serve is starting to get back to first-set form. He’ll need that to be the case if he wants to force a fifth set.
6:40 a.m. ET | Set tied 1-1
Nadal comes right back with the hold. He is yet to commit and unforced error in the fourth set, whereas Federer already has one.
6:38 a.m. ET | Federer leads 1-0
Federer holds to start the fourth set and he has to like the fact that he’s serving first in this set.
Looking back at the stat sheet, Federer had more unforced errors in the third set than the first two sets combined, 25 compared to 24. Still waiting for both men to shrug off the tension (easier said than done) and play their games freely. This is just too much for me to take.
6:32 a.m. ET | Nadal wins third set 7-6 (5)
That was more Fed-error than Federer. Nadal sprints to a 6-1 lead in the tiebreak, but Federer is able to save four set points. Not five though, as Rafa takes the tiebreak 7-5, thanks to five unforced errors from Federer. He’s lost his timing on the forehand side and Nadal is now one set away from his fourth straight Slam final.
6:28 a.m. ET | Nadal leads tiebreak 5-2
Nadal races to a 5-1 lead when Federer misfires on backhand twice, then gets passed when he comes in on a mediocre approach shot.
6:23 a.m. ET | Set tied 6-6
Jim Courier points out that Federer’s serving patterns (going up the tee with regularity) are telegraphing the fact that he doesn’t want to get into long points. Nadal should pick up on that. Instead, Nadal keeps missing his returns and bailing Federer out. Federer lets a 30-0 lead go but eventually holds to force the second tiebreak of the match.
Federer’s lost his timing on his forehand and Nadal can’t seem to find his range on his backhand. This tiebreak should be a close one.
6:17 a.m. ET | Nadal leads 6-5
Patrick Rafter is in the commentary box for Australia’s Channel 7 and he says this is the first time he’s ever seen these two play live. He’s loving it.
Nadal holds at 30 but his backhand has been falling short for much of the set. He’s lucky that Federer has been misfiring.
And in case anyone is wondering, Federer does in fact sweat. Or at least he is tonight. He changed his sweatbands during the changeover.
6:13 a.m. ET | Set tied 5-5
Confident or crazy? On game point, Federer goes for the serve and volley on a second serve (!) and Nadal never saw it coming. Rafa hit his backhand straight back into the middle of the court and Federer finishes off the point for a hold. Hard to tell how this set is going to break. Both men seem like they’re constrained by the tension.
Always love when the ATP’s stat master Greg Sharko weighs in:
6:09 a.m. ET | Nadal leads 5-4
We finally get a prolonged rally with clean ball striking from both men, in a 23-shot rally (the longest rally of the match) that Nadal wins when Federer’s forehand hits the tape. As Rafa sits at his chair, legs twitching and Evian bottles perfectly aligned, Federer prepares for a huge service game as he tries to stay in the set.
6:06 a.m. ET | Set tied 4-4
All that work to break and Roger can’t consolidate. Rafa breaks back at 4-4 as Kim Clijsters, who lost her semifinal match earlier, watches from the stands.
I have to say that so far, this match has been dramatic and tense but outside of a handful of points, we haven’t seen the best from either man for a prolonged period of time. Still waiting for both of them to play well at the same time. That’s when the true fireworks start.
6:00 a.m. ET | Federer leads 4-3
Federer gets the break after Nadal found himself in a sticky service game. Nadal can’t get his feet around to hit his inside out forehand and sends it wide. He hits the back of his leg with his fist and it’s unclear if that was in anger or because he’s cramping. He saves one break point when Federer sends a backhand wide.
Federer earns a second break point hitting his forehand down the line and catching Rafa off-balance, which Rafa saves with an ace up the middle that freezes Federer. At deuce, Rafa throws in his first double fault of the night, sending his second serve long, but saves yet another break point, this time with a service winner out wide.
But this is scratchy stuff from both men, as Rafa hands over another break point when he misses a neutral forehand that he has no business sending long, and on his fourth break point of the game, Federer finally converts when Rafa sends a backhand into the net.
Surprising turn of events here.
5:51 a.m. ET | Set tied 3-3
Incredible defense from both men at 40-15 that has them each sprinting from side to side hitting shots that would surely have been winners against anyone else. Nadal wins a point when he goes for a forehand pass that clips the net cord and pops up over Federer’s reach. Federer went from 40-0 to 40-30, but gets the hold. Still scratchy, but he’s still even on the scoreboard.
5:46 a.m. ET | Nadal leads 3-2
Nadal holds easily at 15, thanks to some cheap errors off Roger’s racket. But you get a sense that love hold from the last game settled Federer down. Much like what Nadal did in the first set, Federer isn’t letting his rival run away with anything. He’s buying himself time to settle back into the match.
5:41 a.m. ET | Set tied 2-2
See? That’s not so hard. Four first serves for Federer, four points, a love hold.
5:39 a.m. ET | Nadal leads 2-1
Rafa had a chance to pull away in the last game and blinked, but came right back out and held at love. Federer needs to get those fireworks out of his system, relax, and get some serves in.
5:37 a.m. ET | Set tied 1-1
Federer gets the much needed hold after Nadal misses a few backhands and leaves the ball short. It would have been disastrous for Federer to get broken there.
Though he got the hold, Federer is officially in a funk. He can’t buy a first serve and he couldn’t buy a second serve in this game either. Two back-to-back double faults puts Federer down 0-40, but he saves three straight break points and finally gets a first serve in at deuce, when he blasts a service winner. We’re seeing such different Federer right now compared to the first set. You can see him over-thinking shots, questioning his decisions leading to shots that look rushed or tentative.
5:31 a.m. ET | Nadal leads 1-0
Rafa starts the set with a hold at love, punctuated by a backhand crosscourt winner. His confidence in that shot has grown as the match has progressed.
Federer went from serving at 71 percent in the first set and hitting four aces to 50 percent and zero aces in the second set. He also went from 76 percent first serve points won to 44 percent. That’s simply not going to get it done. Add in that he only hit five winners in the second set, and, needless to say, that’s a significant dip in form. He’s going to have to regroup quickly.
5:25 a.m. ET | Nadal wins second set 6-2
After the annual 10 minute break for the fireworks wraps, Federer steps to the line to serve to stay in the set.
He double faults out of the gate and then plonks a drop volley into the net. It’s chilly here and the break in the action seems to have cooled Federer off. Not so much for Nadal, who fires a backhand crosscourt return winner, and then Federer dumps a forehand in the net to get broken at love.
Nadal takes the second set with a fist pump and we’re all even. His defense in that set was outstanding. He’s now matching Roger in the highlight reel department.
5:20 a.m. ET | Break for fireworks
It’s Australia Day, so we’re in a break for the fireworks. As SI’s Jon Wertheim notes:
"Fireworks time" says the PA guy…Um, what's the last 90 minutes been?—
Jon Wertheim (@jon_wertheim) January 26, 2012
5:14 a.m. ET | Nadal leads 5-2
It’s not truly a break until you consolidate, and Rafa’s done just that. He’s showing some good energy out there but there’s also flashes of frustration, throwing his hands up in the air after easy forehand misses.
Total points won for the match so far: Roger 56, Rafa 56.
5:09 a.m. ET | Nadal leads 4-2
Game of the match so far. At 0-30, Federer hits a backhand overhead sharply cross-court and Nadal chases it down wide of the tram lines and hits an insane cross court pass that makes everyone, including the entirety of Rafa’s box, jump out of their chairs. He celebrates with a leaping fist pump, easily the biggest display of emotion we’ve seen from Nadal tonight.
I can’t believe he went cross court with that with that. He could have gone around the post down the line, which was the easier shot. Nadal breaks two points later with a backhand pass up the line. He may not be the aggressor in this match so far, but his defense gets him the lead. He’s very much in it now.
5:03 a.m. ET | Nadal leads 3-2
Rafa may have added some weight to his racket but he’s not using it to add any pop to his serve tonight. The Spaniard is serving at 79 percent for the match, going for placement over power.
An unforced backhand error off Rafa’s racket gives Roger a break point, but three straight forehand errors later and Nadal has held his serve.
4:59 a.m. ET | Set tied 2-2
Quick service game for Fed to hold. He seems to be targeting Rafa’s backhand with his serve, trying to get a short ball to control the rally. So far it has been effective.
4:56 a.m. ET | Nadal leads 2-1
Positive point for Nadal at 30-30 to earn game point, continually battering Federer’s backhand until he got a short ball he could work with, followed by a nice serve out wide to hold.
4:52 a.m. ET | Set tied 1-1
Nadal breaks right back at love thanks to a beautiful forehand pass and a couple of unforced errors off Federer’s racket. Still waiting for Nadal to dictate, though.
4:50 a.m. ET | Federer leads 1-0
Federer breaks right out of the gate at love. Ominous stuff for Nadal. He said he has to play aggressive to win. He’s trying, but Roger’s not letting him.
Looking back on that first set, the problem for Nadal is that he’s not dictating play at all. He got back into the first set because Federer’s level dipped, not because he took control of the match. He hasn’t been able to attack Federer’s backhand with regularity, and if that doesn’t change Federer’s going to stay in his comfort zone.
4:42 a.m. ET | Federer wins the first set 7-6 (5)
How big is this match? Mirka Federer looks nervous. No Blackberry for her tonight.
Federer stops mid-point to challenge a Nadal serve, which was ruled in, giving Rafa the point. On the next point, Federer sneaks into the net, and a sweet pick-up volley that only Federer could hit stays out of a sprinting Nadal’s reach. Just like that, Federer has three set points.
He gives one away with a backhand slice into the net and Nadal saves another one with a forehand into the corner. Third time’s the charm as Federer lets out a huge “Allez!” when a Nadal backhand goes long and Federer takes the tiebreaker 7-5. That was quite the roundabout way to pocket the set but he got there in the end. First set to Federer.
Here’s the stat line from the first set:
Federer: 15 winners, 15 unforced errors, 4 aces, 9/17 at the net.
Nadal: 10 winners, 11 unforced errors, 1 ace, 2/4 at the net.
4:37 a.m. ET | Federer leads tiebreak 4-2
A great backhand return from Federer lands on the line and he’s up 2-0 in the breaker. At 2-1, Federer once again hits over a backhand as he’s falling back and gives Nadal a floater to crush in the middle of the court. Rafa takes a cut at the ball and misses it. Huge swing that gives Federer a 3-1 lead, when it easily could have been 2-2. Federer hits an ace up the tee to go to 4-1, and a forehand winner brings Rafa up to 4-2.
4:31 a.m. ET | Set tied 6-6
In the first point of the game, Federer goes to the ground as Nadal wrong-foots him on a forehand pass down the line. It’s always a weird sight to see Fed lose his footing.
At 15-all, Federer decides to hit over a backhand despite falling backwards and the ball stays up for Nadal to crank and inside-out forehand for a winner. Bad decision from Federer there, but his intent for the evening is clear.
Nadal holds at 15 and we’re into a tiebreak. Hard to believe we’d be here after Federer led 4-1 early.
4:28 a.m. ET | Federer leads 6-5
Federer holds at 15, though there’s less conviction in his game right now. Nadal will serve to force a tiebreak in the first set.
4:25 a.m. ET | Set tied 5-5
It’s chilly here in Melbourne tonight, so much so that photographers are in jackets and Darren Cahill has a blanket as he sits courtside. Andy Murray was asked for his predictions on the match yesterday and he was stumped as to whether the cooler evening conditions would favor either man.
Nadal holds at love to stay alive in the first set.
4:21 a.m. ET | Federer leads 5-4
Roger steadies things and holds at love with an ace. Still, it feels like Nadal is finally settled into the match. On the changeover, Nadal sends a racquet off to get restrung. He’ll serve to stay in the set.
4:18 a.m. ET | Set tied 4-4
How quickly the momentum shifts. Nadal has reeled Federer back in and the unforced errors are mounting, as Federer shanks three straight balls to let Rafa hold at love.
4:14 a.m. ET | Federer leads 4-3
Just as I say Federer’s serve in on point… Federer misses a volley and a forehand down the line and gives Nadal a break point, which the Spaniard converts on a dipping forehand crosscourt pass. Federer looked to be running away with this set, but a small lapse and Nadal’s right back in it. I wonder if that’s going to play with Federer’s head.
4:07 a.m. ET | Federer leads 4-2
Highlight No. 2 for Federer as he lunges for a forehand wide and it somehow clears the net and lands in.
Nadal is slowly getting settled in the match and plays his best game of the match as he holds with an ace to 4-2. He has to weather this blistering start from Federer and settle down, but Federer’s not giving him a sniff on his serve. He looks relaxed and comfortable out there and it shows. He’s serving at 94 percent.
4:00 a.m. ET | Federer leads 4-1
Federer with another relatively easy hold. If he keeps striking the ball this cleanly, Nadal is going to have a hard time grinding it out.
3:54 a.m. ET | Federer leads 3-1
Nadal finally on the board and we see him play a quintessential point against his rival. On the first point of the fourth game, Nadal hammers his forehand to Federer’s backhand, causing the Swiss to shank it. Most notable tactical change through the early parts of this match: Federer’s willingness to hit over his backhand more. Significantly less chip and slice from that side. He did the same in his 6-3, 6-0 thrashing of Nadal at the World Tour Finals in London last November.
3:49 a.m. ET | Federer leads 3-0
Federer holds again to consolidate the break. Through three games, Nadal has won four points to Federer’s 13. The Maestro is in the house.
3:42 a.m. ET | Federer leads 2-0
Federer is the first to break after firing a screaming crosscourt backhand that goes straight to the highlight reel. Darren Cahill says it’s one of the best backhands he’s ever seen Federer hit.
3:36 a.m. ET | Federer leads 1-0
Federer won the toss and chose the side. Nadal chose to receive, so Federer is serving with the wind. Easy hold at love for Federer and we’re underway.
Patrick McEnroe picks Federer in four sets, but says the closer the sets are, the more it favors Nadal. Definitely important for Nadal to hold his serve and keep things tight.
After two dramatic women’s semifinals that went the full-tilt, now comes the main event of today: Rafael Nadal vs. Roger Federer, Clash No. 27.
While you’re waiting for the match to start, take a look at this piece by Carl Bialik in the Wall Street Journal, which looks at the many myths surrounding the Rafa/Federer rivalry.
Federer has been the in-form player this week and comes into this semifinal as the only remaining player not to drop a set. As for Nadal, he had some scratchy moments against Tomas Berdych in the quarterfinals but seems to finally unlock his game in the third and fourth set, stepping in and playing aggressively, attacking with his forehand.
“I know I will be on court playing against probably the best of the history,” Nadal said. “So obviously my only way and my only chance to win is play aggressive, play very well, and to play to the limit. That’s what I gonna try.”
As for Federer, he wants to erase the memory of their last hard court Grand Slam match, the five set loss at the hands of Nadal in 2009 that left him in tears.
“I’d like to play Rafa because of our great epic match earlier in the finals here a few years ago. I’d like to get a chance to play him again here.”
Your wish, and our wish, is granted. Game on.