What began two weeks ago as an anticipated collision course between the world’s top two players will conclude tomorrow in a final that pits together arguably the greatest two players in the history of the game.
With worlds No 1 and 2 Andy Murray and Novak Djokovic long since back at home focusing on the next tournament, Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal have taken the Melbourne public on an emotive journey down memory lane.
Having reinvented themselves after a succession of injuries and being overtaken by the game’s new duopoly, Federer and Nadal have conspired through the sheer force of their will and majesty of their games to reach tomorrow’s Australian Open final.
Together they have been written off as major players in the game’s great history, but no longer factors when it came to deciding the major titles.
But what they have proven in Melbourne is that even as the ninth (Nadal) and 17th (Federer) seeds, they can still cause damage in a grand slam tournament.Their tournament nous, as well as their tremendous talent, has got them to this most mouthwatering of Australian Open finals.
Andy Roddick, a player who fell to this dominant pair in many a major contest during the first decade of the century, has said that this unexpected renewal of the game’s great rivalry is the most important tennis match in the history of the sport.
Certainly, there are plenty of uplifting narratives to support the theory; the aging warriors rolling back the years, their tennis-craft outlasting the new generation of physical specimens.
And statistically, there is no match-up with greater resonance. The pair have faced each other 34 times and the head-to-head record is surprisingly one-sided, with Nadal leading 23-11.
The Spaniard has also won nine of their 11 grand slam matches, including six of eight finals. Federer hasn’t beaten Nadal in a grand slam final for a decade; the Wimbledon final of 2007.
As a nod to their dominance over a sustained period – which many thought was a thing of the past – between 2003 to 2014 they won 31 of the available 48 grand slam men’s singles titles.
But what Roddick was alluding to was the number of grand slam titles the pair have already accumulated, and the history that either one of them will make should they lift the trophy in Rod Laver Arena tomorrow morning.
If Federer were to win a fifth Australian Open title, and a first major since Wimbledon 2012, it would stretch his record haul of grand slam titles to 18.
Should it be Nadal, the king of clay, it would take the Spaniard to 15 major titles, and give him sole possession of second place on the all-time list.
More pertinently, it would take him two behind Federer, and with the French Open next where he has won nine times, and with his appetite rekindled, it would once again reignite the question about which of these two is the greatest player of all time.
“It’s a privilege,” said Nadal after he defeated Grigor Dimitrov over five energy-sapping sets in yesterday’s semi-final.
“It’s a very special thing for both of us to be in the final of a major again and have the chance to compete against each other after a couple of years out with some problems.
“It was a moment we never thought we were ever going to have again, to be in the final in Australia, so we both feel very happy.”
The 30-year-old does have concerns though about his physical stamina for the final, given his exhausting five-set victory over Dimitrov came a day after Federer booked his place in the Australian Open final.
Federer was also taken to five sets by Stan Wawrinka on Thursday but the Swiss will enjoy an extra 24 hours rest than Nadal who, for television reasons, played his semi-final yesterday.
At four hours and 56 minutes, Nadal’s epic 6-3 5-7 7-6 (7/5) 6-7 (4/7) 6-4 victory over Dimitrov took almost two hours longer than Federer’s. And across the fortnight, Nadal has been on court for a total of 18 hours and 59 minutes, the equivalent of two routine matches more than Federer’s 13 hours and 41 minutes.
“These kind of matches, even for the body, it destroys your body, but that’s tennis,” said Nadal.
“That’s special, much more special than playing best-of-three. It should be like this, in my opinion.
“For me it is fair enough. It is true that if you play a match like I had today, it probably is true that you are in disadvantage, yes.
“But that’s a special situation, no? I cannot complain about that.”
Dimitrov put up a courageous fight, showing the kind of mental and physical attributes that mark him out as a grand slam winner of the future.
But tomorrow’s final is all about celebrating the game’s glorious recent past, and will perhaps offer one last glimpse of the great Federer and Nadal in full stride.