Tennis fans - all sports fans for that matter - should remind themselves how lucky they are to live in this era of Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal.
The greatest rivalry in the history of the men's game (yes, greater than the rivalries between Borg, McEnroe and Connors and better than Sampras and Agassi) resumes in the early morning hours Gotham time Sunday as they'll battle for the seventh time for a Grand Slam title, this time in Australia. However, this much-anticipated match-up almost failed to come to pass as fellow Spaniard and southpaw Fernando Verdasco nearly defeated Nadal before falling to the world number one, 6-4 in the fifth set in a thrilling and utterly riveting encounter early this morning. It was also the longest match in Australian Open history, eclipsing five hours.
But thankfully for this tennis observer the upset didn't occur and we can all prepare for what we had been hoping for - another Roger vs. Rafa affair. Ever since their "greatest match of all time" at Wimbledon last summer many have wondered if that was the end of their meetings in major finals. After all Federer is supposed to be on the downside of his career, right? Tell that to the Swiss stylist as he is now in his fourth consecutive Grand Slam final. For all the talk of the surging Scotsman Andy Murray or the insanely talented Juan Martin Del Potro and the mercurial Novak Djokovic, it still comes down to Federer and Nadal. The duo's level of play is totally remarkable in terms of consistency and adjustments. It is a privilege to watch them continue to soar past all comers.
In terms of legacy there is much at stake on Sunday. Federer is without question mentioned with the handful of players as the best of all time, that much is secure. But if he loses to Nadal on Sunday for the 5th time in a Grand Slam final on his favorite surface how does one reconcile the fact that Federer can't beat his main rival? There's some merit in that. Most of the greats have managed to outlast and outperform their chief competitors in their respective eras but Nadal is still somewhat of a Kryptonite for Federer. And if Nadal does indeed win on Sunday he will have proved he can triumph on all three surfaces in Grand Slam events, a feat that has painfully eluded Federer as the red clay in Paris - and Nadal - has stymied him.
But if Federer were to win on Sunday he would tie Pete Sampras' record of 14 major titles and authoritatively put to rest any discussions of him being past his prime. All the talk would then be about how Federer has reasserted his hold on the #1 ranking - even if he weren't to technically claim that moniker - and the sport would be on a "watch" all year to see when he would actually break Sampras' record. I can see it now, with the Californian flying over to Wimbledon to witness Federer breaking his record on the sacred lawns.
But as for Sunday, it should be fascinating to watch. Nadal will surely be more tired than Federer having one less day to rest but it will not be the overpowering obstacle that the over-talky ESPN announcers made it seem this morning. It's not like the US Open where the final is played the day after the semis. And a recent glance back to history would show that Stefan Edberg played a five hour, thirty-two minute semifinal in the 1992 US Open and came back the next day to take out Sampras in the final.
Nadal will surely be pleased to be seeing a right-hander again. His vicious, high-kicking spin was slightly muted this morning as he was often hitting it into Verdasco's forehand power zone. Federer though would be wise to take some lessons from watching his great friend and competitor this morning. Nadal is still quite vulnerable on the return of serve and I expect Federer to exploit it. But I think in the end Nadal holds a not insignificant psychological edge and will triumph in four sets.
I implore all sports fans to get a very early start on Super Bowl Sunday, waking at 3:30 AM (it's a little easier for the west coast fans as they can just stay up late on Saturday night and make an extended evening out of it) and enjoy this once-in-a-lifetime rivalry. Seize the day - well, night - as it won't last forever.