Amid the ceaseless search for the meaning of the Federer-Nadal rivalry, at least this much can be said: Federer is one of the greatest players of all, and Nadal is the greatest player of Federer of all. Those are immutable.
Beyond that, amen to the advice of one of their most illustrious predecessors, Pete Sampras. "Let's just appreciate what we're watching, Let's not try to compare," he said. "It's not going to last forever. You have to sit back and enjoy it." Friday night, he (and millions of others) did.
This is an abbreviated form of Magnus Norman's counsel to Stan Wawrinka. No matter how grand is the tournament, or how high the stakes, or how lofty the quality of the field, or what rarified plane they reach, there is only ever one winner _ so cherish every moment of whatever progression you make. Evidently, it is working: Wawrinka awaits Nadal in Sunday's final.
Silently, Federer and Nadal compare; of course they do. The civility of their rivalry is matched only by its intensity. Time and tide has favoured Nadal, but on Friday night appeared at least to be at slack. Since they last met, things had changed.
Federer was fit, was playing a slightly remodelled game that appear suited to the Melbourne Park conditions. His journey through the tournament had been smooth. "I'm explosve out there," he had said. "I can get to balls. I'm not afraid to go for balls."
Nadal was unchanged except for a glowering blister on his left hand. The crowd would gasp often at the class of the strokeplay this night, and once, more loudly still, at a close-up of Nadal's hand as it was treated by a trainer. In this game of spot the difference, would the spot become the difference?
Well, no. The match lived up to its billing in its atmospherics. The plink of Federer's racquet told of exquisite timing, the crump from Nadal's told of furious top-spin. Initially, they were mutually neutralised.
But soon, the pattern was apparent. Longer points suited Nadal. Federer needed to shorten them, but Nadal's spin and placement would not let him. In the first set tie-breaker, Federer moved to cut Nadal off at the pass, but dumped his backhand volley into the net. It proved to be decisive. In that moment, Federer lost some of his certitude, even his aura.
Chasing the game, he took risks, made mistakes, was humanised. Seemingly in almost every service game, he faced break points. Nadal was down break points only once for the night, in the third set. But the momentary parity was an illusion.
The crowd clamoured for Federer, unavailingly. Nadal fashioned his ruthless and relentless game, and why not? Since his return from injury last year, it has been invincible. Federer tried to take the net again, but it was one thing to stop the passing shots of mortals, another to deaden Nadal's bolts. One more volley into the net prefigured the end. As the roof closed over Rod Laver arena, so did Federer's Open.
Nadal took care of niceties. "First of all, it's a very, very special feeling for me when I go on the court with Roger," he said. "I have very, very emotional feelings. He's a great champion, and for me it's a great honour to be in the same era like him." All that skill, and chivalry, too.
Nadal's mission now is to equal or better Federer's record tally of majors, starting Sunday. Federer's is to win another major when no-one expect him to, as champions do. His revived form in this tournament suggests that it is not beyond his powers yet. In the meantime, may their paths cross a few more times yet. For now, there are two certainties, that the boasting rights belong to Nadal, and that he will not boast.
The finale is complete; now for the final.