One thing that's become abundantly clear over the past few years is that Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal are tied together at the ankles with a very short rope. Everything either man does seems to have an impact on the other, if not in what we might call the real world, then inside that enormous bubble of their rivalry, where matters are not entirely in their own hands.
What I mean is, no matter how Roger or Rafa might feel about things—and I believe they'd just as soon both go about their business as if the other didn't exist, until such time as a showdown is mandated by the draw—other agents, voices, influences and compelling, aborning narratives conspire to link their names and destinies.
If Federer beats Tommy Robredo, it isn't long before Robredo is discarded, as if he were a mere prop, and the emerginig theme is how the victory will influence a potenial Rafa vs Roger confrontation. If Nadal crushes Bernard Tomic, ways are found to interpret the triumph as good or bad news for Federer, as if the glaring reality that it is very bad news for Tomic is merely incidental.
Thus, the pendulum of the rivalry during this tournament has slowly swung back in Rafa's favor. Federer came in hot, Nadal's chances looked a little less certain. Would there be a Rafa Slam, like there had been a Martina Slam and Serena Slam? Not if Federer had any say in it, and unease percolated freely in the Nadal camp once he lost in Doha and thereby had to postpone an appointment with Roger. But Gilles Simon and even Robredo, to whom Federer lost a set in the fourth round, have moved the pendulum back the other way. In matches with those men, Federer showed signs of the inconsistency that plagued him at times through the first nine months of 2010.
Rafa helped himself the other day, giving the pendulum a good shove with his comprehensive beatdown of Marin Cilic, who had won their only previous match under comparable, open-air, hard-court conditions in 2009 in Beijing. Inside the bubble, the headlines said: "Nadal Beats Tall Croatian, Now Playing Better Than Federer." No sense complaining about all this; it's part and parcel of rivalry. One reason neither of these guys needs to look over his shoulder is because two million designated back-watchers are doing it for each of them.
Tonight, Federer gets his own Cilic, which is another way of saying that he has a chance to shape the narrative inside the bubble in a way that will improve his status. It's not that Stanislas Wawrinka, Federer's quarterfinal opponent, plays very much like Cilic. It's more that he represents a similar type of player, and is presently making a bid to join the group that has come to terms with the fact that it's going to take tennis played at that outer edge where power and consistency meet to take Federer down. The challenge for Federer is that Wawrinka, whom expert witness John McEnroe has said has the best backhand in all of men's tennis, has been making progress in that bid to join the Soderlings and Berdychs of this world. Just look at his photo on the tournament's official website and you'll know what I mean when I say the man has intentions. It's less head shot than mug shot.
Wawrinka is well-seasoned for this tussle. He's 25, and apparently ticked off that he's dilly-dallied and failed to make the most of his talent, which has been a realization of near-viral proportions in the ATP ranks these days. Seeded No. 19, Wawrinka has had a pretty tough draw in terms of the general quality of the opposition, if not necessarily the Xs and Os of each matchup.
After defeating Teymuraz Gabashvili, Wawrinka easily handled fast-rising prodigy Grigor Dimitrov (it was their first meeting), after which he performed a clinical deconstruction of Gael Monfils—a guy who had beaten him twice (on hard courts) since the Manislas won their first battle way back in 2007. In the fourth round, Wawrinka swamped Andy Roddick, the No. 8 seed, to improve his record against Roddick to 3-1. Wawrinka hasn't lost a set yet, although that's likely to change. Still, the only player who's seeded lower than Wawrinka in the men's quarters is the unseeded but electric Alexandr Dolgopolov. Wawrinka is seeded 12 places lower than the next lowest man, David Ferrer.
Against Roddick, Wawrinka's first serve percentage was an unimpressive 49, but he rained down 24 aces (a pretty good indicator of how deceptive statistics can be). Also, Wawrinka powdered 67 winners in 29 (total) games, for a scary average of 2.9 winners per game. Federer hasn't come close to matching Wawrinka's single-match winners count, and hit more than 37 only in the two matches in which he lost at least one set. Federer has made 40 more unforced errors in the tournament, with 147 in all. Overall Wawrinka is a net +82 in the winner-to-unforced error ratio, while Federer is +27.
I cite those figures because they suggest that Wawrinka goes in with an edge if it's going to be a shoot-out, although it's true that Federer has had to play three more sets than his next opponent, which adds to both his winner and unforced error counts. That's why averages and ratios are the best way to look at certain quantifiable factors.
Barring a drop-off in Wawrinka's form, Federer is going to have to be mighty sharp for this one. If he goes toe to toe with Wawrinka from the baseline, he could be in for a long and perhaps very rough night. Federer leads the rivalry, 6-1, and it's significant that Wawrinka's lone win was on clay—the surface that, up to a point, aids players who aren't nimble because it allows them more time to draw a bead on the ball. This will be a great opportunity for Federer to make the most of his excellent mobility and the new, aggressive elements in his game. If he can keep Wawrinka moving and under pressure, he can neutralize some of those big groundstrokes. It isn't so much a matter of ending rallies as it is keeping Wawrinka from getting his feet planted during them.
Wawrinka will continue his interrupted quest for validation (he hit a career-high No. 9 in early summer of 2008, but leveled off and began dropping to his present position of No. 19) with one enormous disadvantage that has nothing to do with forehands or backhands, and that's his Swiss nationality. It's a small nation with, traditionally, a dearth of heroes in major spectator sports. Federer has become the nation's sporting icon, and it's safe to say that Wawrinka was awful lucky to have Roger for a doubles partner when the pair won the gold at the 2008 Beijing Olympics. Like it or not, resist it or not, there are karma issues at play in these situations, which is why I suspect that the match will be close but Federer will pull it out—or the Manislas will blow it—in the end.
I'll bet that even Rafa watches this one, even if he needn't bother to analyze what it will mean to him. Plenty of others will be all too happy to fill that role.