by JAMES HENRY
CINCINNATI – Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal will continue their legendary rivalry at the Western & Southern Open in Cincinnati.
Federer defeated Tommy Haas 1-6, 7-5, 6-3 and Nadal beat Grigor Dimitrov 6-2, 5-7, 6-2 to set up their quarterfinal match.
It will be the 31st time that they have competed against each other. Nadal leads the head-to-head series 20-10, but they have split their hard-court encounters 6-6.
Their lengthy story hasn’t diminished the excitement between them to write a new chapter.
“Always play against Roger is a special feeling. We have a great history behind us in our confrontations,” Nadal said. “It’s a special one because you’re playing against a very special player.”
But, he added, “It’s a quarterfinals match, not the final, so that’s a big difference.”
Federer noted Nadal is having a “great” season.
“He’s coming into this tournament clearly very confident,” he said of last week’s Rogers Cup champion. “It’s clearly going to be a difficult match because he comes in with a lot of confidence again.”
Federer conceded he currently lacks that confidence, as well as fitness and match play.
“Little bit of everything. Yeah, I mean, I fell behind a little bit with the injuries I’ve had. Where I wanted to do a lot of, how do you say, exercises and training and all that stuff, I couldn’t really do that. I had to do more waiting and rehabbing,” he said.
“I think that just adds up over time and has maybe a little dent in your confidence at times. And then I was playing hurt, as well, which was not very smart at times. I got used to doing the wrong things because I’m protecting myself.
“Then when you’re fine again, you’re still playing like you’re protecting something, but actually you don’t have to anymore. So it’s difficult sometimes to let go. I think that’s what I was kind of going through, and that’s why I’m happy I’m pain-free right now and just to make up my mind how I really want to play right now. So every match is helpful in this instance.”
Federer said he is more concerned about feeling good at the end of his matches than he is worried about statistics such as breakpoint conversions.
“Overall, I’m looking at the big picture and just playing matches again. I want to make sure I’m moving well and feeling fine,” he said.
“Every minute more in a match court is a good thing right now,” said the winner of five championship titles in Cincinnati. “Let’s be honest, it gives me a lot of opportunity in the next match to do better. Gives me more information going to New York, as well. Or Staying in the tournament and then hopefully giving myself a shot at the trophy again.
“So there’s only good things when you win. If you lose, you have to go spend more time on the practice courts. Spent a lot of time on the practice courts already this year. So I’m happy it’s match courts for another day, which is a good thing.”
Federer explained that every match gives him information to know if he is on the correct course.
“I’m a strong believer that I’m on the right path right now, and I just need to make sure that mentally I stay cool about it,” he said. “I’m not putting too much pressure on myself, either. I’m really enjoying myself.”
Nadal agreed the style of Dimitrov, nicknamed “Baby Fed,” is similar to the game of Federer, the winner of 17 Grand Slam singles titles. But, he said, the 22-year-old Bulgarian still has more to improve.
“The style is very similar. Yeah, the game is similar, but for the moment, what we can compare is the style than the level of tennis,” he analyzed. “Dimitrov can play at a very, very high level, and I’m sure he will have a great chance to be in the top positions if he keep improving.
“He’s one of the leaders of the new generation, and we’ll see. He needs to keep improving. He has a good advantage that his serve is great, so that’s very important today in tennis.
“And then he has everything to be a very good player. So we’ll see in the next months, years.”
When asked to name other top young players, Nadal cited Canada’s Milos Raonic, the newest and youngest member of the ATP World Tour Top 10 and runner-up to him at the Rogers Cup, and Poland’s Jerzy Janowicz, who challenged him in the third round last week in Montreal, as well as American Ryan Harrison.
Nadal said he is happy with his level of aggression in the match against Dimitrov.
“Yes, I hit a few balls from not the best position too aggressive, my opinion. Sometimes I didn’t make the right decision how to go for the winner,” he said.
“But that’s something that can happen when you try to play aggressive, and it’s something that I am doing a little bit more often than before."
“So it’s a mistake that I have to accept. I assume this mistake. So it’s something normal, and tomorrow will be another match against a great player, probably the best in history, and if I am not 100 percent ready to fight every ball and to make the right decisions in the right moments, I will not have chances to win.
“So I have to be ready to keep playing aggressive, but making the right decisions in every moment.”
Fedal XXXI is scheduled to start not before 7 p.m. Friday on Center Court.
Photos by James Henry