Rafael Nadal has recalled the darkest moment of his glittering career as he savours his most unlikely grand slam final shot against his greatest rival.
Nadal said his blockbuster Australian Open final with Roger Federer on Sunday night would be extra poignant given the mountains both men have climbed to reach it.
“To play with Roger again in a final of a grand slam, I cannot lie – it’s great,” the 14-time major winner said.
— #AusOpen (@AustralianOpen) January 27, 2017
“It’s exciting for me and for both of us that we are still there and we still fighting for important events.
“So that’s important for us. That’s very special.”
The emotional high Nadal is feeling is in stark contrast to the lowest of lows he felt after withdrawing from the French Open last May with a wrist injury that many feared would end the 30-year-old’s career.
“Last year was tough. When you feel that you are playing very well and you have to go from Roland Garros without going on court, I remember myself crying on the car coming back to hotel,” Nadal said.
“That was a tough moment.
“But then I tried very hard to play the Olympics. I take risks to play Olympics because it is a very special event for me.
“To represent my country there was so important. I take the risk. Was a great Olympic Games for me. Having gold medal in doubles.
“I was close to having a medal in singles. If I have to be back there, I would play again.
“But after that, I played the US Open with okay conditions. After that, the hand was not there any more. I had to stop, and was a great decision.”
After Federer’s semi-final win over Stan Wawrinka he recounted how he and Nadal were both so physically banged up last year that they couldn’t even play an exhibition match during the launch of Nadal’s new academy in Mallorca last October.
“I was on one leg and he [Nadal] had his wrist problem,” Federer said. “We could only play mini tennis with the juniors. Look where we are now.”
Now Federer is on the brink of a long-coveted 18th grand-slam title, while Nadal is chasing his 15th major.
— #AusOpen (@AustralianOpen) January 28, 2017
The decorated duo last met in the final of a major at Roland Garros in 2011 when Nadal prevailed in four sets. They have only met once previously in an Australian Open final, albeit back in 2009, and Federer won in five sets.
Nadal holds a 6-2 lead over the Swiss maestro in major championship deciders, is a commanding 9-2 ahead in all grand slam meetings.
But the humble champion insisted past triumphs counted for little considering how much time had passed since they last competed in a final.
“Is a different match, different moment for both of us. This match is completely different than what happened before,” Nadal said.
I really don’t think about what happened in the past.
“The player who plays better is going to be the winner.
“Is a very important match for both of us.”
Australian greats give their predictions
The biggest names in Australian men’s tennis are divided on how the nostalgic showdown will play out.
Roy Emerson, a 12-times major winner, believes a Federer comeback title would “definitely be the best” feat ever accomplished in tennis.
Another Australian, Mark Philippoussis suggested Nadal had been Federer’s nemesis for years – “It felt like he was his Kryptonite for a long time” – but said the faster conditions at this year’s Open suited the Swiss.
“Maybe with Nadal hitting the ball, sometimes he can drop it a little short and Federer will be looking to take advantage of that and getting in whenever possible and taking advantage of that net play,” he said.
John Newcombe and fellow former world No.1 Pat Rafter both insist such daring tactics are the only way Federer can win.
“It’s going to be a big ask because the match-up between the two favours Rafa,” Newcombe said.
“Roger’s game suits Rafa. It’s hard for Roger if they get into baseline rallies – he probably loses 80 per cent of them if they go above 10 shots.
“For me, the question is what tactics Roger will employ.
He’s got to serve and volley 30 per cent of the time on his first serve.<br />
“He’s got to do a lot of little slice backhands, he’s got to keep changing up what he does.”
Rafter believes Federer needs “to be slightly more aggressive” against Nadal.
“Federer has the ability probably to come into the net a bit more and I’d like to see that being Federer’s game tomorrow night.”
Rod Laver, the only man to accomplish two calendar-year grand slam sweeps, suspects Federer’s move to a bigger racquet (after enduring years of torment at the hands of Nadal’s whipping left-handed forehand to his single-handed backhand) will aid the Swiss.
“Roger won’t have to slice it as much, which allows Nadal to get around it and be aggressive,” Laver said.
Former Wimbledon champion Pat Cash is confidently tipping Federer to deny 30-year-old Nadal a 15th slam, and first since 2014.
“A fast hard court, night time is perfect for Federer. Lower bouncing is perfect for Federer. He’s fresh, perfectly made for Federer,” Cash said.
The only thing is Rafa’s got him in the head.
“For me, that’s the only question mark.”
Cash suggested, though, that Nadal’s own mental frailties had been exposed during his sapping five-set semi-final win over Grigor Dimitrov.
“Under pressure, Rafa’s not playing too good,” the two-time Open finalist told AAP on Saturday.
“He’s choking on serve returns; always (hitting) really short and just misses returns.
“Last night, he had break points but just missed second-serve returns. Like, come on.
“He gets tight under pressure now.”
So who wins?
“Everything points to Roger. If Rafa pulls this out, that’s just too good.”