But as so often has been the case in their 10-year series, Friday night's Australian Open semifinal was much more about Nadal's brilliance than Federer's failure.
Reducing Federer's perceived strengths -- in this case a more aggressive net game he had embraced and sharpened this tournament under the influence of new coach Stefan Edberg -- to just another opportunity for a blistering passing shot, Nadal all but cruised to a 7-6 (4), 6-3, 6-3 victory.
Nadal will meet Federer's Swiss countryman Stanislas Wawrinka in Sunday's final, moving ahead of Pete Sampras and equaling Ivan Lendl's 19 Grand Slam finals appearances.
A victory for Nadal Sunday will tie him with Sampras at 14 Grand Slam titles and make him the first man in the Open era -- and only third in history -- to win each of the four major titles twice.
But Friday night was more about one of the great non-rivalries, as Nadal is now 23-10 versus Federer overall, 9-2 in Grand Slams and 9-6 on hard courts.
After a tight opening set in which Federer fought off two break points in the seventh game and one more in the ninth, Nadal took control in the tiebreaker with a 5-1 lead built mostly on Federer errors, and played the rest of the match on his terms.
That translated to a dizzying array of classic Nadal groundstrokes -- on the run and standing still, cross court and down the line, from low forehands that appeared unhittable to crackling backhands that froze Federer at the net -- which made it stunningly apparent that this was not going to be Federer's night.
In contrast to his quarterfinal and semifinal victories against Jo-Wilfried Tsonga and Andy Murray, Federer lost control Friday by virtue of Nadal's harder and deeper serve returns, which forced him into more errors. And mentally, Federer looked frustrated from late in the second set on, seemingly not playing with the same conviction as he had throughout the tournament.
Through the seventh game of the second set, Nadal had yet to face a break point and had lost only three points total on his serve, including one double fault.
"He did a good job," Federer said. "He didn't make many errors, even though I was trying to hit hard and flat. I tried to play my game. Sometimes I did play very well and sometimes I didn't. But he overall was more consistent. He deserved to win tonight. I mean, he was better."
A blister that had been rubbed raw on Nadal's left (racket) hand had to be rewrapped during a medical timeout early in the second set, and whether it was that delay or just the hopelessness of the match in general, Federer seemed to become increasingly agitated, complaining two games later (after Nadal held at 2-1) to the chair umpire about Nadal's trademark grunting.
"Nobody ever says anything," Federer was heard saying and then addressed it after the match.
"[It's not distracting] when he does it every point," Federer said. "But it goes in phases. One point he does and [one point] he doesn't. That's just what I was complaining about. It had no impact on the outcome of the match … "
Nadal seemed taken aback by the charge.