Roger Federer poses with the Norman Brookes Challenge Cup after winning the men’s final against Rafael Nadal at the 2017 Australian Open on Jan. 29. (Scott Barbour / Getty Images)
It’s unlucky for them that they will meet Wednesday in the fourth round of the BNP Paribas Open, not in the final with another prestigious championship on the line. But it’s lucky for all who care about tennis and sports that Federer, playing with his usual elegance while insisting he’s still on the comeback from a knee injury, and Nadal, grunting in his third-round victory Tuesday as if each stroke caused him unbearable pain, are still capable of staging a spectacle in the 36th meeting of their glorious careers.
The anticipation of this matchup has grown exponentially since the release of the quirky draw that created the “Group of Death” in the bottom quarter. That they played so recently, in a five-set Australian Open final won by Federer in his return from a six-month absence from tournament competition, only enhances the occasion. This can never happen too often, no matter what round it happens to take place.
“That’s why I came here, to play against guys like Rafa. Now we have it,” Federer said Tuesday after a 7-6 (3), 7-6 (4) third-round victory over big-serving Steve Johnson in which he had no break points against him. “I’m going to be excited now. Better be excited now. Otherwise I came for the wrong reasons.”
For Nadal, a 6-3, 7-5 winner over fellow Spanish left-hander Fernando Verdasco, encounters with his Swiss rival will never get old.
“He has the talent to do very difficult things that look easy. He’s able to take the ball very early, serve and first shot. He creates a lot of winners with that two first shots, no?” said Nadal, who leads their head-to-head series, 23-12. “And then he’s able to take the ball always from inside, and he’s very quick going to the net. If you play a short ball, then you know that he’s gonna go inside and gonna hit a winner, gonna play a shot with that forehand or backhand, go to the net, and you are going to be in big trouble.”
Not that Nadal is a slouch. Australia’s Nick Kyrgios, also in the most forbidding quarter of the draw here and also on to the fourth round after a 6-3, 6-4 victory over Germany’s Alexander Zverev, said that if he had the chance to take something from the games of Federer, Nadal or Novak Djokovic, he’d look to Nadal for counsel.
But his question wouldn’t involve technique or strategy.
“I would just like to ask Rafa how he can play every point as if his life is on the line. I think that’s one thing that gets overlooked,” Kyrgios said. “He’s so good at tennis that you sort of don’t really appreciate how he lines up for every point and he plays it, whether he’s 40-love down or 40-love up. I think that’s the most incredible thing about his game. That’s something I don’t have.”
He will get a chance to study Djokovic’s game up close when they meet in a fourth-round match Wednesday as the warmup act for Federer vs. Nadal. Djokovic, seeded No. 2 here, couldn’t shake Juan Martin Del Potro until he broke the Argentinian’s serve for a 3-1 lead in the third set, but after that he closed out a 7-5, 4-6, 6-1 victory Tuesday night. In another fourth-round match, Malek Jaziri of Tunisia — who eliminated American Taylor Fritz on Tuesday, 6-4, 3-6, 6-3 — will face American Jack Sock, who advanced with a 3-6, 6-3, 7-6 (7) victory over Grigor Dmitrov.
But back to the main event.
Federer, 35, and Nadal, 30, first played each other in the second round of the Miami Masters tournament in 2004. Federer, with Wimbledon title already on his resume, was No. 1 in the world and seeded No. 1. Nadal was the No. 32 seed but he prevailed in straight sets. “I went on court, nothing to lose,” Nadal recalled. “It was a beautiful match, and I tried to go out on court and enjoy it and fight for it.”
All these years later, they have 32 Grand Slam singles titles between them, 18 for Federer and 14 for Nadal. And they’re still fighting, still a spectacle like few others, more worthy of appreciation now, as they age, because there’s no way to know how many more times they will face each other on the court.
Federer said Nadal “has definitely also made me play some of my best tennis against him,” as he did in Australia in a final that instantly became a classic. “That’s why I think it’s good that we play again right here in the States,” Federer said. “I think it’s a great thing for tennis, and it’s exciting for Rafa and me.”
And it never, ever, gets old.