Roger Federer went on the offensive midway through yesterday's (Friday's) semi-final - but only when he was sitting down. While waiting for Rafael Nadal to have his blisters taped, Federer complained to the umpire about the volume of Nadal's grunts. "It hasn't been something new," came the sensible reply.
Federer sounded a little like Mr Pipe-and-Slippers, objecting ineffectually to the raging house party next door. But then, nobody makes him feel his age like Nadal. Yesterday's 7-6, 6-3, 6-3 defeat brought the guillotine down on Federer's early-season revival, and reminded us that he is still a 32-year-old facing a hungry posse of twentysomethings.
"I don't know how to explain to you guys," Federer said, as he found himself besieged by journalists who wanted to know where his form had evaporated to. "It's totally different playing Rafa over anybody else.
"Playing [Andy] 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." In other words, Federer tried to be Federer yesterday, but Nadal would not let him. When Federer stepped up to hit his backhand, Nadal's throat-seeking top-spin forced a flurry of miscues. When Federer rushed the net, Nadal's passing shots were so deadly that they could have been lined up with telescopic sights.
Federer's miraculous new racket had reverberated like a bass drum all fortnight, but against Nadal, it reverted to a tinny snare. Not that this is anything new. We saw the same script played out in most of their previous 32 meetings. The tallest edifice in modern tennis is now tilting even more precipitously in Nadal's favour, with 23 wins to just 10 losses. In grand slams, the bias is 9-2 in the Spaniard's favour.
While yesterday's match offered -little in terms of drama, the quality of play was high. Murray's former coach, Brad Gilbert, put it well when he tweeted: "Rafa in beast mode and that cannot be stopped." Indeed Nadal was almost unrecognisable from the erratic, anxious character who had struggled to subdue Grigor Dimitrov - the man known as "Baby Fed" - in four sets on Wednesday.
Few athletes in history can match Nadal's ability to summon his A-game when it is most urgently required. The bad news for Stan Wawrinka - the next Swiss to face the Spanish threshing machine - is that the blister on the palm of Nadal's left hand is clearing up, and his serve was back to its full speed yesterday. This left no apparent weakness in his thunderous, bull-fighter's game. Federer had to wait until the third set before he earned so much as a break point. "I think I am quick today," Nadal said, which is about as close as this humble man ever comes to bigging himself up.
"I produce great shots from very difficult positions. The movements are ready and I feel the power in the legs." There had been a rare sense of anticipation around Rod Laver Arena yesterday evening; the fans were desperate for Federer to maintain the sharpness that had sunk Jo-Wilfried Tsonga and Murray. Such has been the rejuvenation of Federer over the past fortnight that his whole tournament has felt like a bonus for Melbourne's tennis community: an unexpected chance to see the greatest artist of his generation playing somewhere near his peak. But the excitement began to drain after a tight first set, in which Federer just about managed to hang on to his serve, only to be outmuscled in the tie-break. This was the moment when the trainer came on to fix Nadal's increasingly minimalist blister tape (which gave Nadal more control of his racket than he had when fully strapped on Wednesday, but also left him worrying that the covering might just slip off). It was also the moment when Federer got stuck into umpire Jake Garner about the grunting.
Asked later if the noise had distracted him, Federer replied: "Not when he does it every point. But it goes in phases. One point he does and he doesn't. That's just what I was complaining about." Federer was also being forced to wait far longer than the allotted 20 seconds between points when Nadal was serving, which also came up at the post-match press conference. "Rafa is doing a much better job today than he used to," Federer said.
"But he's gotten two point penalties over the course of our rivalry. I just think that's not quite happening. It's important to enforce the rules on all the players the same way." If it sounds as if Federer was sniping, that would be misleading. For the most part, he was upbeat about his month in Australia, which delivered a runner-up finish in Brisbane followed by his first grand slam semi-final for a year.
"I'm not too disappointed tonight because I feel it's been a good start," he said. "I needed a good moment again because I've been going through a tougher time. I still feel my best tennis is only ahead of me right now. So I'm looking forward to the next couple of months, and hopefully, by April, I feel like I'm going to be at 100 per cent again."