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.