Tennis: Exit Federer, Grand Slam record under threat

MELBOURNE - Roger Federer traipsed off Rod Laver Arena with his head bowed, barely smiling for the fans and cameras. And it's not hard to see why.

Defeat to Rafael Nadal on Friday evening did not just rob him of a great chance of winning his 18th Grand Slam title. And it did not just end his 13-year reign as Switzerland's number one.

For Federer, it halted a promising revival in his tracks, exploded a much-vaunted new tactic against the Spaniard, and would have left him wondering if he can ever beat his nemesis on the big stage again.

Worse, it left Nadal on the verge of his 14th major win, and gunning for both Federer's Grand Slam titles record and the unofficial mantle of greatest of all time.

Afterwards, the Swiss star was slow to arrive at his post-match press conference, and when he did, he cut a despondent figure.

"He did a good job. He didn't make many errors, even though I was trying to hit hard and flat. I tried to play my game," the glum Federer said.

"Sometimes I did play very well and sometimes I didn't. But he overall was more consistent. He deserved to win tonight. I mean, he was better."

It was an honest assessment of a straight-sets 7-6 (7/4), 6-3, 6-3 mauling by Nadal which stretched their career head-to-head to 23-10 and gave their highly anticipated semi-final an anti-climactic feel.

Federer came into the match with his confidence high. His new, bigger racquet was working well, he was fully fit, and temporary adviser Stefan Edberg had put some zip in his game.

The old master, at 32, was back to his brilliant best in taking apart Jo-Wilfried Tsonga and Andy Murray, coming repeatedly to the net in shades of six-time major-winner Edberg.

But hopes of ending his seven-year Grand Slam drought against Nadal, 27, soon looked optimistic and as the night wore on, the Spaniard was beating him in all departments.

When Federer came to the net, as often as not the ball was zipping back past him. His winners were being returned with interest and his backhand was finding the net. Nadal's groundstrokes, off each wing, simply had more pace and venom.

So much for the new Federer. Afterwards, Nadal said he had seen it all before, including in the 2012 semi-final which he won in five sets, and which he watched on YouTube earlier in the day.

"Sure he's trying to play more aggressive, but I think he tried against me in the past, with success," said Nadal, who will play Switzerland's new number one, Stanislas Wawrinka, in the final.

"It's nothing completely new that he's playing aggressive. He's a very aggressive player. He's one of these players that he's able to win the point in one shot, in two shots."

Uncharacteristically, Federer hit out at Nadal's grunting and slow play, indicating the depth of his frustration.

"It goes in phases. One point he does and he doesn't," grumbled the Swiss, who was so annoyed he complained to the umpire.

But he insisted he was on the up, and looking forward to the rest of this year's Grand Slams.

"I think this is a very good start to the season for me overall. I played some really good tennis here. I still feel my best tennis is only ahead of me right now," he said.

"So I'm looking forward to the next couple of months, how they're going to play out for me, and hopefully by April I feel like I'm going to be at 100 per cent again."

So don't write Federer off for another Grand Slam title - unless of course he comes up against Nadal.