Moments before Friday's semifinalists were about to walk on the court, the roof over Rod Laver Arena malfunctioned. It was 90 percent shut, and officials were fiercely trying to figure out what caused it to stall. They eventually got it to open up after about 10-15 minutes of uncertainty -- which, on a windy day, was a pretty big advantage for Rafael Nadal.
As if he needed one.
Nadal is a wizard when it comes to fighting through inclement weather. ESPN analyst Brad Gilbert calls him the best wind-court player since Andre Agassi. The amount of spin he generates from unfurling his massive groundstrokes mitigates the uncertainty and unpredictability of wind that other players fall prey to. Tennis players abhor anything but steady, easy air -- it's as simple as that. And Roger Federer, who is fussy to a fault, is no different.
On this cool, gusty night Down Under, the Spaniard needed the bare minimum three sets to once again blow past Federer, 7-6 (4), 6-3, 6-3 in the Australian Open semifinals. After a competitive opening set, it was an all-too-familiar outcome for Nadal, who improved his record against Federer to 23-10 in what is the most spellbinding lopsided rivalry in tennis.
For all his recent shortcomings, Federer is still considered one of the best, if not the best, indoor players in the game. And if he still has one edge over Nadal, it's on indoor courts, where the Swiss holds a 4-1 advantage.
Ah, those roof-fixing maestros had no idea they were going to play such a significant role in the outcome.
But joking aside, though conditions may have been a factor, the reality is that whether the roof was closed or not, Federer wasn't moving around the court with the same zeal he showed against Andy Murray and Jo-Wilfried Tsonga in his previous two matches.
"It's a totally different match," Federer told reporters shortly after the match. "I don't know how to explain you guys. It's totally different playing Rafa over anybody else. Playing Murray or Rafa is day and night.
"It's not because of the level, necessarily, but it's just every point is played in a completely different fashion and I have to totally change my game.
"No excuse. It's just a fact of what it is. I tried to fight that today, and he yeah, it's a different match -- very different."
Despite a disappointing ending for him, this tournament as a whole had had an eminently different feel for Federer, who came into Oz with a new coach, new frame and, most importantly, a new frame of mind. There was no indecision on his part on what he needs to do to keep his career moving forward. We emphasize "moving forward." Federer swarmed the net all tournament long, including 66 times against Murray in the quarterfinals. For a number of years, as his contemporaries have powered past Federer, there have been a lot of people asking for some sort of reform in his game.
At this point in his career, that moving-forward approach might be the 17-time major champ's only salvation if he wants to remain competitive with Nadal, Novak Djokovic and Murray, whom he went 0-8 against last season. In Melbourne, Federer had more than a flashback to his Slam-winning ways. We've seen him toy with new game plans and equipment, but it's clear that he now has full trust in his tactics.
"I like to be in command," Federer said. "That's what I was able to do now the last couple of weeks. So that's very encouraging."
At 5-3 in the third set, with Nadal fully in command, the prospect of rain loomed. The radar revealed a growing number of green patches that were slowly making their way toward Melbourne Park, patches that could have potentially given Federer a few moments of respite from his insufferable opponent who was just moments away from a berth in the final.
Imagine what could have happened if the rain had taken a more direct route and created some chaos. Insert 2008 Wimbledon flashbacks here. But there was no rain, no drama, no reprieve for the Swiss. Nadal, who had long since broken Federer's spirit, broke Federer's serve to close out the match. And thus, another chapter in this longtime rivalry falls flat.
The bottom line is that Nadal was the better, more aggressive player. And if you're a Federer fan, that's hard to swallow no matter how many times you've seen it.
So don't go blaming the guy who opened the roof.
Sweet Pete on the state of the game
Pete Sampras is making a rare Grand Slam appearance in Melbourne this weekend after accepting an invitation to present the Australian Open men's trophy Sunday, but he said it was unlikely he would join the coaching ranks of former champions like Ivan Lendl, Stefan Edberg and Boris Becker.
"No, no, no, it's not for me," said Sampras, a 14-time Grand Slam champion and two-time winner (1994 and '97) here. "I've been asked by a couple guys. But the travel, to go on the road, do all that they're doing, is not something I'm interested in."
Sampras, married for 13 years and the father of 11- and 8-year-old boys, said he keeps busy playing occasional exhibitions, works out "a touch" and plays "a lot of golf."
Sampras said although he rarely makes appearances at majors, he was "excited" to be back to a place he called "a tough major for me."
"The Rebound Ace court they had at that time was tough on my body, tough to serve and volley, a surface that was tough when it got hot," he said. "At times when I played Davis Cup, was No. 1, it was over in December and three weeks later I had to hop on a plane to come down here. At times I felt like I was a little flat coming down here. It was just a tough major for me to win. I felt like I struggled a little bit."
Sampras called the serve-and-volley game "a lost art. Everyone is staying back and hitting the crap out of it," he said, "which is fun to watch. Roger has a little more variety to come in, slice it, chip and charge occasionally, but for the most part, it's just everyone staying back and throwing rocks."
Sampras said if he were playing on tour today, he would still be serving and volleying.
That's the only way I know how to play," he said. "People say it's harder to do it, the technology. But I think technology would have helped me out. If I used these rackets that Rafa is using, it's easier to serve, easier to volley. I could serve harder and longer. It would have been easier.
"It all evens out. But I think serve-and-volley tennis, it would have been just fine today. I just think you need to know how to do it."
As for the state of American men's tennis (the top-ranked American, No. 13 John Isner retired with a knee injury in his first-round match, with 51st-ranked Sam Querrey and 91st-ranked Donald Young making it to the third round), Sampras said he didn't have any answers. "I think the world just got better," he said. "I think the game got more global. We're doing OK, but we're a couple levels behind the top guys.
"I think the world just got more exposed to tennis. You look at where Rafa is from, Roger, Novak. This is maybe a sport they wouldn't have played 20 years ago. Now all these great athletes from other countries are playing tennis, not just soccer. I think that's part of it. Maybe their satellite tour is stronger than our American college tour. … There's a bunch of reasons. I just think the world has gotten a little stronger."
-- Melissa Isaacson