FedThe visual evidence indicated otherwise, but that didn’t stop him from responding to his vanquisher’s question with a smile and congratulatory pat on the stomach.

I’m okay.

Coming in to their match against each other on Thursday night, both Rafael Nadal and Roger Federer faced question marks regarding their health. As Federer departs for a lengthy hiatus that won’t see him back on the tour until May, the focus shifts to him, as the greatest player of all time stares mortality in the face. There’s an expiry date on excellence.

Jimmy Connors and John McEnroe made it twenty years without killing each other on the court. That in itself is a marvel. Aside from a handful of petty snipes in the media regarding the ATP player’s council, Roger and Rafa had no such issues, comporting themselves in a manner that made some of their more obsessed fans wish for UFC style trash stalk to spice things up. The seminal moment in their rivalry came after the 2008 epic at Wimbledon, when Federer’s family welcomed Nadal’s to celebrate after both men treated us to perhaps the greatest match we will ever see.

Connors/McEnroe and Federer/Nadal do not share much in common except for one thing. In 1978 Connors defeated McEnroe in three sets on the clay at Indianapolis. That day on clay would be the last time they faced off in a match that wasn’t a semi-final or final until 1987, a span of nine years and 27 matches.

Roger and Rafa first met at Key Biscayne, 2004, in the third round. A then 17 year old Nadal made a statement, defeating number one ranked Federer, 6-3, 6-3. 28 matches later they faced off last night in a quarterfinal at Indian Wells. It was the first time they didn’t meet in at least a semi-final since that day in Key Biscayne.

The Connors/McEnroe feud went off a cliff after the SF/F streak was broken. They faced off in Toulouse for one more title before the rivalry died–age, injuries and decline the principal culprits. My dad talks about it all the time. How lucky his generation was to see Connors, McEnroe, Borg, Lendl and others do battle all over the world. I feel the same way about Roger, Rafa and now Novak and Andy. Last night’s match, however, felt like the beginning of the end.

There isn’t much to say about the play on the court. Andre Agassi and Kevin Spacey were there, which is sort of cool until I remembered Spacey is tennis obsessed and doesn’t miss a tournament. My hero. Federer looked uneasy from the opening coin toss while Nadal carried on with his classic boxers hop. What knee injury?

From the beginning Federer had to work much harder to hold his serve. His back clearly wasn’t 100%, as shown by Fed’s inability to hit triple digits on his first serve and a handful of second serves clocked in below 80. As like every other match between the two, Rafa peppered Federer’s one handed backhand–one that’s so much harder to hit when your back is screwed–and found success, like he has so often.

Nadal capitalized on his third break point of the match at 3-3, blistering a backhand winner past Federer. A few easy Nadal service games later and the first set was over. 6-4. It shouldn’t have been that close. Zero break points for Fed, a first serve percentage of 68% and 16 unforced errors to Nadal’s eight told the story.

Mentally, Roger had always lacked belief against Nadal. Rather than harp on a subject that in my opinion is slightly overblown–yes it plays a part, the matchup in general is a horrible one for Federer–this wasn’t about that.

Nadal cruised to a 3-0 lead in the second set. After a brief glimmer of hope– Federer got one break back–it was over in one hour and 24 minutes. The camera man flashed to a fan holding a sign that said ‘Rafa, you’re my Messi!” The spectator wasn’t wrong. After making his comeback in South America earlier this year, Nadal is on his way to joining Murray and Djokovic as a legitimate contender for every tournament he enters. The bull is back and we’re better off for it. His compassion shouldn’t be overlooked, either.

Where do we go from here? This was one of the worst matches in their storied rivalry–Miami 2011 was pretty bad as well–but the biggest takeaway is Federer’s health going forward. “The second set was strange,” said Nadal. “The second set, Roger didn’t fight as usual.”

Just for perspective, last night’s demolition had the most Grand Slams represented on a single court in the history of men’s tennis – 28. Federer will take several weeks off before returning to the tour in Madrid. He played off the injury during the post match press conference, but his camp has to be concerned.

No one said Roger Federer could do this forever. The beginning of the end is here.