For five matches at the Australian Open, Roger Federer appeared to be as graceful and confident on court as he was at the height of his career, losing just one set as he cruised into the semifinals.
And then he ran into a familiar wall — the man who bedevils him like nobody else at the Grand Slams.
Federer hasn't defeated Rafael Nadal at a major for nearly seven years, his last win coming at Wimbledon in 2007. Nadal now enjoys a 23-10 record against him overall — and he's 9-2 against Federer at the slams.
Federer's mounting frustration was clear during his 7-6 (4), 6-3, 6-3 semifinal loss on Friday night.
At one point during a changeover, a clearly frustrated Federer complained to the chair umpire about Nadal's grunting, which he thought to be excessive. He later said he doesn't think the umpires enforce certain rules when it comes to Nadal, pointing out that the Spaniard had only received two penalties in all of their matches for taking too much time between points.
"I'm not complaining about so many things," Federer said. "I just think it's important to enforce the rules on many levels, whatever it may be. On all the players the same way. Don't give me or (Novak) Djokovic a free pass just because of who we are. I think we should all be judged the same way."
Federer may be feeling better about his form given the way he's started the year, reaching the final of his first tournament at Brisbane and now the semifinals of the Australian Open for the 11th consecutive year, notching wins over 2008 finalist Jo-Wilfried Tsonga and No. 4-ranked Andy Murray, the Wimbledon champion.
But he hasn't found an answer against Nadal.
"You know, Rafa was his usual self, what I kind of expected," he said. "When he usually comes in against me, he always plays solid, if not great."
"It's a totally different match. I don't know how to explain it. It's totally different playing Rafa over anybody else. Playing Murray or Rafa is day and night."
Though he was disappointed with his play in the semifinals, he insists he's heading in the right direction. The experiment with the larger racket has so far proven successful and he likes what his new coach, Stefan Edberg, is bringing to his team.
He's feeling much more positive about his game, compared with where he was last summer when he suffered a string of surprising losses to lower-ranked players.
"I needed a good moment again because I've been going through a tougher time for some time," Federer said. "This is a step in the right direction and that's the way I want to go. I have a belief this could be a very good year for me again."