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Rafael Nadal, left, plays Roger Federer in the Australian Open semi-final today.
Rafael Nadal, left, plays Roger Federer in the Australian Open semi-final today.

Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal's rivalry never gets old

The 27th meeting of the pair in Melbourne in the semi-final of the Australian Open is as interesting as their first meeting.

Look at them. Rafael Nadal has very big hair. Roger Federer still has that ponytail that would meet scissors and be forgotten. Both use white headbands. Nadal wears a sleeveless shirt, red to the verge of burgundy. Federer has white with a horizontal stripe.

Nadal's face looks vaguely chubby; after all, he's only 17. Federer is only 22 himself, with two grand slam titles and a fresh No 1 ranking. They whack the ball through the sweaty Miami night, March 28, 2004, a Sunday but not a final Sunday, a last 32 match for mercy's sake, an age ago.

Federer loses and comes in and refers to the difficulty of a first meeting: "He doesn't hit the ball flat and hard. It's more with a lot of spin, which makes the ball bounce, bounce high, and that's a struggle I had today. And you know, he hit some really incredible shots. That's what youngsters do, so "

Nadal wins and comes in and foreshadows his trademark modesty: "Obviously, he didn't play his best tennis and that's the reason why I could win. I mean, if he had played his best tennis, I would have had no chance."

Watch Nadal's inelegant little hop after his put-away wins match point, and somehow the video seems a chunk of prehistory. That owes much to the volumes tucked between Federer v Nadal, Match No 1, March 2004, and Federer v Nadal, Match No 27, slated tonight in Melbourne, Australia.

The 25 matches in between defy easy comprehension so that the memory fumbles some perfectly good jewels.

There was a marvellous five-set plot in a Wimbledon final in 2007, which Federer won with a 6-2 fifth set. It barely comes up in conversation. There was that four-set Wimbledon final in 2006, which Federer won but which hinted - no, shouted - that Nadal had become that black swan, an elite Spanish grass-court player. That day has left most minds.

Federer rebounded from two sets down in a Miami final in 2005. Nadal looked so fearsome through Roland Garros in 2007 that it seemed Federer should get an extra trophy for the one set he squeezed out in the final. They went five hours and five minutes in Rome in 2006, Nadal winning 7-6 in the fifth.

You have to be a serious nut to recall all that by now. By now, the memory can handle only the top-drawer stuff in the top-tier rivalry.

They had 6-4, 6-4, 6-7, 6-7, 9-7, and almost nobody ever had anything like that, a 2008 Wimbledon final of heights seldom accessed by any sporting event. Nadal won. Nobody lost.

They had that night in Australia in 2009 where Nadal won in five gruelling sets, and Federer sobbed, and Nadal put an arm around Federer, and their giant heap of dignity came on view.

Of late, still in mind, they had the 2011 French Open final which, while extending Nadal's clay-court advantage over Federer to 12-2, wended through the first two sets in unpredictability, Federer looking haunted at almost claiming them.

In Miami, in 2004, did the 17-year-old Nadal seem nervous at the outset?

"No," Federer replied that night.

Who was this left-hander ranked No 36?

"When I play well," Nadal said that night, "I'm a very aggressive player with a good forehand and I fight very hard on the court."

Is that so?

Nadal entered the Federer-filled picture after the latter had won the 2003 Wimbledon and the 2004 Australian. The idea of watching Federer had begun to transcend the tennis-minded and find the aesthetes who just fancied beauty.

After Miami 2004, Federer-Nadal would not occur again until Miami 2005, and again in a French Open semi-final in 2005. The frequency built, then ebbed into the occasional: finals and semi-finals and round-robins that find the two still more than relevant.

In the stuffed years since Nadal's 6-3, 6-3 upset in Miami, they have tacked on 24 more grand slams to get to 16 and 10.

As those numbers built, they combined to forge what the uppermost rivalries forge, which is that somehow neither seems to occlude the other even partially. Their homes - Basel, Switzerland and Mallorca, Spain - seem to have ceased to matter as they have come to belong to the planet.

So here we are, 2012 already, and still we get to see them out on the court together, their match a colossal grand slam semi-final and not some early-round farewell to the fading. They still star in a golden phase even if by now they have other company. All this time after Miami, and still in the middle of the remarkable.

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