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Twilight Zone tennis: First Rafa, now Fed out at Australian Open; Li Na looks to become first Chinese woman to win major

Photo by Danny Aller

Photo by Danny Aller

MELBOURNE, Australia -- Roger Federer saved a parting shot for anyone who thinks his time is up and a changing of the guard in tennis awaits.

"Yeah, I mean, they say that very quickly. ... Let's talk in six months again," he said.

The heavily hyped duel between Federer and Rafael Nadal will not happen in Melbourne, opening a rare window for someone else.

Federer, the No. 2 seed and defending champion, lost to Novak Djokovic, 7-6 (3), 7-5, 6-4 in the Australian Open semifinals Thursday night. It marks the first time since 2008 neither of tennis' most dominant men will play in a Grand Slam final. Less than 24 hours earlier, an ailing Nadal's pursuit of a Rafa Slam evaporated in a quarterfinal loss to fellow Spaniard David Ferrer.

Djokovic will play Ferrer or Andy Murray -- who play Friday night in the other men's semifinal -- in the final Sunday.

Federer and Nadal have combined to win 21 of the last 23 majors. This is also the first time since 2003 that Federer, a 16-time Grand Slam winner, will not hold at least one of the four major trophies.

The Swiss great was outplayed by Djokovic, who reveled in the cooler night weather. It was the second straight time Federer has lost to the Serb -- he had match points before losing in the U.S. Open semifinals.

"It's disappointing and it hurts in the moment itself," Federer said. "I wish I could have won here again for the fifth time. But it wasn't possible (Thursday night). It's not the end in any way. It's a start for many other tournaments after this."

Federer said he didn't play the key points well. He fell behind quickly in the first-set tiebreaker on backhand errors, giving Djokovic four set points.

In the second set, he got up a break. Djokovic was scrambling, twice tumbling to the court and losing his racket as he tried to stay in rallies. But Federer, so used to moving in for the kill, let a 5-2 lead slip and dropped the set. From there it was just about over.

"Every time I had slight opportunity, either I didn't play my best or he played his best," Federer said. "It was a tough night from this standpoint. Those are sometimes the way matches go."

Nadal limped away from his match, saying he had a small muscle tear in his upper left leg and casting doubt on his readiness for at least a few weeks. Federer, however, has no ailments to speak of.

"I feel very good. I'm very optimistic about the next 15 tournaments, however many I'm playing," he said. "I've barely lost matches lately really, so I'm happy with where my game is at, with where my condition is at.

"I'm really excited for what's to come. This is obviously a bit of a blow. At the same time, I played a good tournament. I have no regrets."

Djokovic planned to relax and eat popcorn while watching tonight's semifinal between Murray, the 2010 finalist, and No. 7-ranked Ferrer.

Murray was leading Nadal in the quarterfinals last year when the Spaniard retired in the third set because of a knee problem that put him off the tour until March. Nadal returned to the tour in March and went on to win the French, Wimbledon and U.S. Open titles.

When he arrived in Melbourne, he was aiming to be the first player since Rod Laver in 1969 to hold all four men's majors at once. Now, Murray is hoping to be the first British man since 1936 to win a major.

But the story Thursday was the back-to-back ousters of the world's Nos. 1 and 2 players.

After Federer won in Australia last year, Nadal took the last three men's crowns and looked to complete what was being labeled as the "Rafa Slam": holding all four major titles at once.

Djokovic and Juan Martin del Potro are the only players who have broken the Nadal-Federer sequence. Del Potro beat Federer in the 2009 U.S. Open final. Djokovic defeated Federer in the Australian semifinals three years ago, then beat Jo-Wilfried Tsonga in the final.

Since then, Djokovic has been the perennial next-best player -- he has finished the last four years at No. 3. His victory Thursday night came easier than his semifinal victory over Federer at the U.S. Open when he had to save two match points.

"It's really one of the best matches I've played in a while," Djokovic said.

Djokovic appreciates what Federer and Nadal have done for tennis, but he wouldn't mind busting up this duopoly.

"On one side it's good for the sport to have more players being able to win against Federer and Nadal," he said. "All the credit to them what they have done in last five, six years. They've been very dominant and just a great example of champions.

"It was really hard to challenge them, especially in the big events where they play their best tennis. Now these things are changing a little bit, so from that perspective it's good for the sport."

He was careful to play down any talk about a new order in tennis.

"Look, it's maybe early to say that," said Djokovic, who has improved to seven wins in 20 matches against Federer. "Roger is still very much motivated to reclaim the first spot in the rankings. He's playing great. (Thursday night) I think I played maybe a better match, but he's still up there and in extraordinary form and he's been winning out of the last five, six tournaments he won five," Djokovic said.

"You have Nadal on the other hand which has been a very, very dominant player. We are still behind them. You can't say there is a new era coming up. There is more players. More players that are able to win majors, which is good."

If Murray or Ferrer wins Sunday, there will be another major winner in the men's mix. But Federer cautioned his competitors and critics to watch out after that. He can handle the Melbourne loss, he said, because "that's sometimes how it goes."

"Doesn't mean the guy that doesn't win the tournament can't play tennis," he said. "That's sometimes how things are portrayed. I had a great season last year, and I think I'll have another one this year."