Posted: Thu January 23, 2014 6:54AM; Updated: Thu January 23, 2014 10:08AM
Jon Wertheim
Jon Wertheim>INSIDE TENNIS

A career-defining match for Roger Federer, Rafael Nadal

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Roger Federer, Rafael Nadal
Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal last met at the ATP World Tour Finals in November. Nadal won 7-5, 6-3.
Juian Finney/Getty Images

MELBOURNE, Australia -- The relationship between Roger Federer and Stefan Edberg has been shrouded in considerable secrecy. Edberg is not a coach, we've been told; he's more of an adviser. Edberg is there "to provide mental challenges," which sounds a bit like he's Federer's Words With Friends adversary.

But, after his exquisite performance against Andy Murray in the quarterfinals of the Australian Open on Wednesday, Federer offered a glimpse of Edberg's duties.

"I'm looking forward to speaking to Stefan," Federer said. "Because when he came to Dubai [during Federer's offseason training] and we spoke about the game, we clearly spoke about playing Rafa, as well."

Ah, yes, Rafael Nadal. That guy. The Federer-Nadal rivalry has cooled to a mere slow boil the past few years. Other players have ascended. Federer, of course, had his 2013 decline. The two met four times last year, all at ATP Tour events, and Nadal won all of them. Sometimes the matches were competitive. Other times, not so much. Nadal now leads the head-to-head 22-10.

NGUYEN: Best moments from Federer-Nadal rivalry

Yet this remains the alpha rivalry in tennis, the ultimate contrast in style. Lefty versus righty. One-handed versus two-handed backhand. Art versus effort. Beauty versus brawn. Flat versus spin. Swiss sensibilities versus Iberian sensibilities. Nadal and Novak Djokovic have played each other more times (39 and counting), contested more finals, have a closer head-to-head (22-17 Nadal) and are closer in age. Yet Federer-Nadal persists. One suspects that during that Dubai visit, Federer and Edberg were not sipping coffee and speaking about Djokovic or Murray.

Apart from the stylistic differences, Federer-Nadal now also mesmerizes us because history and legacy are at stake. Federer and Nadal are competing for more than superiority in the present. They are competing for superiority in the future. That mystical distinction of the most accomplished player of all time -- the tennis crowd has abbreviated it to the GOAT (greatest of all time). Nadal stands in Federer's way. Federer stands in Nadal's way.

So, as much as we all abhor hype and sensationalism, here we go: Friday's semifinal has the capacity to be a career-defining match for both players.

Really.

If Federer wins, it would mark the ultimate takedown. Federer, of course, is coming off a dispiriting year. He won only one title, a minor one at that. He suffered bad losses at three of the four Grand Slams. He's 32 years old. He came into the Australian Open having lost to Lleyton Hewitt, one of the few players his senior, in a tune-up.

Nadal, meanwhile, is the meaty years of his career. The 27-year-old is the current No. 1 and winner of the previous major, the U.S. Open in September. For Federer to resurrect his game to the point where he could beat Nadal? It would be the ultimate expression of his durability and his native talent.

A win over Nadal would reframe Federer's 2013. See how he plays when he's healthy? As Federer himself put it on Wednesday: "I am back physically. I'm explosive out there. I can get to balls. I'm not afraid to go for balls." (Translation: I wasn't myself last year.)

It would reframe the head-to-head ledger that so heavily favors Nadal. That this win would occur on hard courts, the most democratic surface, would add to the gravitas. You can hear the Federer disciples forming their arguments already: Let's see Rafa, when he's 32 years old, beat the world No. 1 on a neutral surface. Then we'll talk.

Two more victories for Federer here would mark his 18th career Grand Slam title, widening the gap on Nadal. It would also help with the "concentration" argument. Eight of Nadal's 13 Grand Slam titles have come on clay. By contrast, a win here for Federer would mean he'll have won three of the Grand Slams at least five times. And why stop at 18? Coming out of Melbourne with the title -- having beaten Jo-Wilfried Tsonga, Murray and Nadal along way -- Federer would be well-positioned to win Wimbledon.

GALLERY: Federer vs. Nadal over the years

What if Nadal wins this match? He will push his head-to-head record against Federer to a ridiculous 23-10. More important, he will have beaten Federer nine of 11 times at majors -- the tentpole events -- and every time since 2007. Want to take Nadal's natural habitat of clay out of the equation? Fine, he still will have a vastly superior record on other surfaces. You can hear the Nadal disciples forming their arguments already: How can Federer be the best ever when he loses two out of three matches to his rival?

If Nadal goes on to win the title, it will consecrate his 14th major. Five years younger than Federer, he would be only three Grand Slam titles behind. (Who would bet against his catching up, especially given Nadal's squatters rights in Paris?) This would also diminish claims that Nadal is a clay-court specialist. He would now have won each Grand Slam at least twice.

One match. Such a slab of tennis history at stake.

What's that you say? Regardless of who wins between Federer and Nadal, there's still a final to play? Technically, you're right. But it sure doesn't feel like it.

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