Federer, Rafa have reset their expectations; Can they live up to them?

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Nobody expected Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal to reach the Australian Open final. What happens now? (AP)

If you were a hopelessly romantic tennis fan in January, you might have envisioned a day this year when Rafael Nadal or Roger Federer—perhaps even together—would once again appear on a Grand Slam podium for a singles trophy presentation.

Wouldn’t that be something?

But you probably did not, in your wildest dreams, think it could happen at the Australian Open. But the twin icons got there, and it may be a game changer for 2017. Their success also catapulted them into an entirely new category as far as expectations go, and that’s a mixed blessing. Much is anticipated, little is known.

The impact of the Australian final will be felt powerfully by Novak Djokovic and Andy Murray. You can’t say that either man is mired in a slump, but it’s clear that each man now has reason to feel anxious about the immediate future—much more so than if a Stan Wawrinka, Kei Nishikori or Jo-Wilfried Tsonga had stepped up to win in Melbourne.

An unexpected gauntlet has been smacked on the table. But are Roger and Rafa prepared to back up the challenge? Are they even in the mental space where doing so is viable?

“The last problem is the Slam count,” Federer said after he racked up No. 18 in Australia a few weeks ago. “Honestly, it doesn't matter.”

For his part, Nadal isn’t focusing on winning that elusive 15th Grand Slam title.

“At this moment in my career, more than all these kind of things is being healthy enough to work the way I need to work, the fight the way I want to fight,” Nadal told reporters at the Australian Open. “I need to fight. I'm going to keep trying to do [that] and to work the same way.”

Those sentiments are easy to understand. After all, Federer is going on 36 years of age, and he’s coming back from knee surgery. It was minor surgery, but a sure sign of mortality—as were the two medical timeouts he took late in the Australian Open. It wasn’t an easy decision to take those breaks; he’s proud of his old-school bona fides.

Nadal will turn 31 during his beloved French Open—if he’s in Paris to celebrate it, as is his custom. Last year, Nadal had to break with tradition because a wrist injury forced him to withdraw from the tournament before playing his third-round match. In the two previous rounds, he lost a grand total of just nine games in six sets.

Nadal’s fate seems to hang in the balance constantly, hostage to a body that may betray him in unexpected ways at unpredictable times.

But here they are and, like it or not, the ball is in their court. Their life would arguably be easier, if less exciting, had they produced more routine comebacks—say, lasting two or three rounds, maybe a quarter or even a semi. Their riveting performances re-energized the game but also elevated expectations. On the plus side, they aren’t the only ones who will be feeling more pressure as the heart of the tennis season approaches. Djokovic, Murray and company now have reason to be afraid, very afraid.

The game moves quickly, so it’s easy to forget that less than a year ago Nadal was nicely positioned to make life miserable again for Djokovic—and everyone else—at the French Open.  He won two titles on the Euro clay circuit. He took losses in the big clay Masters events to Murray and Djokovic, but by then the wrist that forced him to abandon his quest in Paris was inflamed.

Nadal is still just 30. All other things being equal, that “King of Clay” crown is well within reach.

Nadal has known little but misfortune at Wimbledon since 2012. It’s odd, given that it’s also where he played the defining match of his career, that legendary 2008 final in which he defeated Federer. But Wimbledon is where Federer is most likely to reprise his Australian success.

The major question raised by Federer’s triumph in Melbourne is how it will affect him.

He said this after winning: ”The magnitude of this match is going to feel different. I can't compare this one to any other one, except for maybe the French Open in '09. I waited for the French Open. I tried, I fought. I tried again and failed. Eventually I made it. This feels similar, yeah.”

The big difference between then and now is that Federer was well into his career and growing anxious about perhaps failing to complete a career Grand Slam by 2009—much like Djokovic was last year. It also was clear that he still had a lot of tennis ahead of him. Thus, Federer’s accomplishment in Melbourne is more reminiscent of Pete Sampras winning major No. 14 at the U.S. Open in 2002, after a long, frustrating drought.

Significantly, after he locked down that major, Sampras put his racquet down and never picked it up again, except for fun. Federer and Sampras are different characters for certain, but this Australian Open title was a very long time coming. (Federer last won a major in 2012.) It’s hard to predict just how it will affect his motivation.

One problem for both Nadal and Federer will be the seeding. It will take a great effort for them to get back into the Big Four, their places having been usurped by Wawrinka and No. 4 Milos Raonic. With Nadal currently at No. 6 and Federer at No. 9, they face potential fourth-round matches with the top seeds.

But shimmying up the slippery pole, chasing titles, crunching the rankings numbers—those are preoccupations best left to younger, greener men eager to impose their will on the game.

“I cannot predict what's going on in the future,” Nadal said in Melbourne. “That's always the same thing. I just think that I am playing well. I just think that I worked hard to be where I am. I believe that playing like this, good things can happen.”

They happened in Melbourne. Why not in Paris, Wimbledon and maybe even New York as well?

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