Fourteen years after their first Roland Garros semi-final meeting, Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal will hit the battleground again on Friday, fighting for the place in the final. This will be the 39th encounter between two great rivals and the first since Shanghai 2017, with Roger scoring five straight wins after losing in the semi-final at the Australian Open in 2014.
Of course, all of those matches came on hard court and the upcoming clash will is the first on clay since Rome 2013 final when Federer won just four games. Overall, Nadal is 23-15 ahead (it was 23-10 before Roger's streak), 13-2 on clay and 5-0 at Roland Garros where he toppled Federer in four finals, the last time in 2011.
Returning to clay for the first time in three years and Roland Garros after the quarter-final loss to Stan Wawrinka in 2015, Federer has played some impressive tennis in Paris during the fortnight, losing only one set and advancing into the last four for the first time since 2012.
On the other hand, Nadal is chasing the 12th Roland Garros crown, never losing in the semi-final or the final here and seeking a similar outcome versus Roger as well, especially after so many losses in 2017. The Spaniard always had the edge over the Swiss on clay, ever since that first match in Paris 14 years ago, with Roger scoring two wins over the greatest player on this surface in history in Hamburg 2007 and Madrid 2009.
Federer will have to deliver his best tennis to stand a chance on Friday and it is a perfect time to recall how he did that on the previous two occasions, more than ten years ago. On May 20, 2007, Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal played their 11th match on the Tour, battling for the Masters 1000 crown in Hamburg.
Roger and Rafa fought in the final for the eighth time and the fifth at Masters 1000 series, with Nadal winning seven out of ten previous matches, including the final in Monte Carlo a few weeks earlier. Also, clay was the surface of the battleground for the sixth time and Roger finally managed to topple Rafa on his favorite dirt, overcoming a slow start to celebrate a 2-6, 6-2, 6-0 triumph after completely outplaying Nadal in sets two and three.
Since Valencia in April 2005, Rafa won an unmatched 81 matches in a row on clay, conquering the past 13 ATP tournaments and already standing as one of the best players of all time on the slowest surface! Nadal lost a set on clay 6-0 for the third and last time, a good indicator of how well Roger played on that day.
The roots of Nadal's problems in this match lay in the fact he was unable to exploit Roger's backhand, a familiar pattern in his previous successes against the world no. 1, with Federer spraying only 12 errors from that wing in the entire clash.
This allowed the Swiss to endure the longer rallies and wait for a chance to attack once he would have taken the initiative in the exchanges. Also, Roger served at only 52% and that cost him dearly in the first set, finding the rhythm on the second serve in the rest of the encounter to topple the clay master and earn the fourth Hamburg crown.
Nadal's return mainly landed on Roger's forehand side and Federer was in a position to impose his shots early and keep the points on his racquet, which is essential against Rafa. Nadal served at 78% and that didn't bring him much, dropping almost half of the points in his games (only five points won on serve in the final set) and facing 11 break points, suffering five times.
Federer repelled five out of seven break points to keep the serve safe after the initial setback, doing much more damage with the first serve in comparison to Nadal. They had a similar number of service winners, 16-14 in Roger's favor, and the Swiss star also gained the advantage in the number of winners from the field, with 23-19.
Fourteen of these winners came from his forehand wing that worked great once he would have found the rhythm, with Nadal finishing the encounter with an almost identical number of winners from forehand, backhand, and volley.
The Spaniard hit just three winners in the final set, finding it more and more difficult to penetrate Roger from the baseline as the match progressed. They were also neck and neck in unforced errors segment, with Roger spraying 27 (18 from his forehand which was all over the place in the first part of the duel) and Rafa 25, something that couldn't make the difference in the overall score.
That leads us to forced errors, the area that delivered the victory to Federer who committed 13 errors less than his rival! Namely, Nadal was pushed to the limits in majority of the exchanges, reaching 20 forced errors while Federer stayed on only seven, probably the lowest number in the matches on clay versus Rafa.
Almost half of the points ended in the shortest range up to four strokes and they were equally good, with a 38-35 advantage for Roger. Nadal could have been pleased with these numbers since we all expected him to dominate in the longer points, which wasn't the case on that day.
Roger had a notable 25-16 lead in the mid-range exchanges with five to eight strokes, also staying toe to toe with the Spaniard in the rallies that saw nine to 12 shots where both won 11. Out of 38 longest points, Federer grabbed 22, an excellent indicator of how solid his baseline game was and how well he constructed the points against the clay court dominator.
After he finally became world no. 1 in summer of 2008, Nadal was the player to beat in the first half of the next season, conquering the Australian Open, Indian Wells, Monte Carlo, Barcelona and Rome, heading to Madrid (replacing Hamburg) as the big favorite to become the first player with all three Masters 1000 titles on clay in the same season.
The semi-final clash with Novak Djokovic ruined the plan for Rafa who prevailed 3-6, 7-6, 7-6 in four hours and three minutes to set up the title clash with Roger who took down Juan Martin del Potro! Nadal couldn't recover in such a short period, with Federer taking advantage of the circumstances to score a 6-4, 6-4 triumph in an hour and 26 minutes, becoming the first Madrid champion at Caja Magica.
This was a significant victory for the Swiss who started to lose ground in the first four months of the season after being defeated by his biggest rivals at the Australian Open, Indian Wells, Miami and Rome. As we all know, he carried his Madrid form to Roland Garros as well, beating Robin Soderling in the final to lift his first and only Grand Slam trophy in Paris, completing the unmatched list of Grand Slam titles.
Roger's plan was simple, trying to keep the points as short as possible on the fast Madrid clay and avoid long rallies and the pressure on his backhand, hoping to stay away from unforced errors that have always been tormenting his game against Nadal on clay.
Federer managed to win five points more than Rafa, saving all four break points he faced and taking both break chances earned to emerge as a champion, toppling Nadal for the second time in 11 matches on clay. Also, the Swiss finally broke Nadal's streak of five wins in a row against him, all in big finals including Roland Garros, Wimbledon and the Australian Open.
It was only the fifth defeat for Rafa on beloved clay in the last 155 matches and the first after 33 straight victories, losing to Roger for the fifth time in 16 ATP finals they had played up to that point. That semi-final clash against Novak took a lot from Nadal although he was there to fight for every point, creating a break chance in the second game that Roger denied with a service winner to avoid an early setback.
The Spaniard was the better player on the court in the first six games, making comfortable holds and creating another break chance at 3-2 that could have sent him in front. Roger fended it off with a great forehand attack and leveled the score at 3-3 with two winners, staying in touch with his opponent until game nine when he made a huge step towards the opener.
Before that game, Nadal lost just four points in four service games before Roger found the way to create a break point with a forehand winner and covert it when Rafa netted a backhand, moving 5-4 up and serving for the set in the next game.
Carried by this momentum, Roger held at love with a service winner to clinch the opening set 6-4 after 40 minutes, hoping for more of the same in the rest of the encounter. The Swiss was more aggressive, defending the second serve nicely before seizing the only chance on the return he got.
Nadal kept fighting and held at love twice at the start of the second set, with a completely different outcome waiting at 2-2. Roger created a break point with a backhand drop shot winner in that fifth game and Nadal sealed his fate when his forehand landed long, allowing Federer to move 3-2 up and control the scoreboard.
Roger cemented the break with a service winner, forging a 5-3 advantage with another unreturned serve in game eight for another big step towards the finish line. Nadal reduced the deficit after deuce in game nine and Roger was now serving for the title, looking to close the match with another good hold.
Instead of that, the persistent Spaniard gained two break points that could have changed the course of the match completely if he had converted any of those. It wasn't to be for him, though, wasting the first one with an open backhand that landed wide and the second when Roger forced an error from Nadal's right wing, earning a match point with an ace down the T line.
Rafa managed to save it but Roger blasted an ace on his second one to bring the encounter home and lift the 15th Masters 1000 trophy, the first since Cincinnati 2007 and the fifth on clay overall, with the previous four coming in Hamburg.