and No. 1 seed Rafael Nadal each need to win one more match to secure a historic showdown in the U.S. Open men’s singles semifinals on Friday.
And that’s about as boring and neutral as I can be about this development, folks, because WOOOOOO, BABY! ROGER VS. RAFA IN NEW YORK!? I CAN’T BELIEVE THIS BAD BOY IS ON THE VERGE OF HAPPENING!! IF YOU HAVE TO SELL A CAR OR A CHILD TO GET A TICKET, DO IT!
Yes, right, I know, I know: the respectful and superstitious thing would be to refrain from talking about any Roger vs. Rafa meet-up, because Nadal and Federer still have to get through Andrey Rublev and Juan Martin del Potro on Wednesday, respectively, and neither Rublev or del Potro is a slouch.
Del Potro basically died and crawled out of the grave to win a match in five sets Monday night. The dude’s amazing. And he’s spoiled Federer and Nadal before to win an Open.
You: See? Settle down. We’ve been here before. Nothing in tennis is guaranteed. Remember Serena trying to win the calendar Grand Slam in 2015?
Me: I CAN’T SETTLE DOWN! I SPENT ALL LAST NIGHT FOLDING NEON BANDANAS!
How can anyone be restrained about Roger vs. Rafa? Tennis history is knock, knock, knocking. To heck with respect and superstition. Let black cats walk under ladders! I don’t care.
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Roger & Rafa! Rafa & Roger! Is it finally going to happen at the U.S. Open? The game’s greatest stardust at the planet’s loudest Slam?
I think it might!
You: You’re jinxing it, you moron.
Me: I am sort of jinxing it, sorry.
They’ve never met here, incredibly. Federer and Nadal have plenty of history at Wimbledon, Australia and even Roland Garros, but not once have they looked at each other across the net in Arthur Ashe Stadium.
It’s bizarre. It’s like finding out Elvis never played Vegas. How have the tennis gods missed this one?
To be fair, both men are partly to blame. Nadal missed finals with a waiting Federer when he lost in the semifinals to Andy Murray in 2008 and to del Potro in 2009. Federer broke off finals with a waiting Nadal when he lost back-to-back semi heartbreakers to Novak Djokovic in 2010 and 2011 (Fed had two match points in each.)
Federer also missed a potential quarterfinal showdown with Nadal in 2013 when he lost to Tommy Robredo in the fourth round.
They’ve had chances, close enough to touch. And it’s never happened. In an all-time rivalry of rivalries, it’s one of the few things that’s left.
For a minute, it looked like we wouldn’t get here this year, either.
Both men looked a little wobbly kicking off this year’s Open. Especially Federer, who pulled out of a Cincinnati tournament two weeks before with back issues, and struggled uncharacteristically in back-to-back five-set victories in the first and second rounds. Both Frances Tiafoe and Mikhail Youzhny had chances for career-making upsets.
Nadal didn’t struggle the same way, but both Taro Daniel and Leonardo Meyer swiped a first set off him.
Here’s the good news: It looks like both men are now clicking. On Monday, both Nadal and Federer rolled to straight-sets victories—Nadal making short work of Alexandr Dolgopolov, and Federer with a relative breeze over Philipp Kohlschreiber.
If this was an NFL show, you know what the middle aged guys in suits and ties would say: They’re peaking at the right time! Nadal looks like Nadal, and Federer appears fluid, unworried about his tricky back.
Thank goodness for it, too. While the minus-Serena women’s draw at the Open has been an intriguing surprise, with four U.S. women—Venus Williams, Coco Vandeweghe, Madison Keys and Sloane Stephens—advancing to the quarters, the men’s side suffered with pre-tournament withdrawals of Novak Djokovic, Stan Wawrinka and No. 2 seed Andy Murray.
Murray’s late departure especially tormented the men’s bracket. Prior Open winners Nadal, Federer and del Potro are still alive in the top half of their draw along with Rublev, but in the bottom half, a first-time Slam finalist will come from the remaining foursome of Sam Querrey, Kevin Anderson, Pablo Carreno Busta, and Diego Schwartzman.
In a proper sports universe, Rafa and Roger would have the opportunity to meet for a final. A semifinal will have to do. Hopefully ESPN has Friday free and isn’t committed to showing the Northern Vermont Scooby-Doo High School Kickoff Classic.
What a year it’s already been for Nadal and Federer. A year ago, Fed skipped the U.S. Open to recover from injuries. Nadal pulled out of the French, missed Wimbledon and got bounced from New York in the fourth round by Lucas Pouille.
This season is an utterly different tale. Federer and Nadal kicked off 2017 with a five-set epic in Australia, followed by matches in Indian Wells and Miami. Nadal went on to win the French. Federer took Wimbledon. It’s like old times.
Except this. This would be new. This would be history—and the dream.
Rafa Versus Roger. One more win each, then Friday night at the U.S. Open.
It’s all happening.
Write to Jason Gay at Jason.Gay@wsj.com