Of course the light was beginning to leave Centre Court before the match had even started. That’s how Nadal-Federer has to feel now, isn’t it? These are the golden years of the most sentimental rivalry in the history of the game. And Wimbledon is the most sentimental event, perhaps, in all of sports. The last time Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal played at Wimbledon, 11 years ago, it resulted in the most memorable match ever played—which ended, of course, at dusk.
Federer and Nadal’s semifinal match on Friday, their first-ever meeting at Wimbledon before the final, was a nerve-wracking affair, the best match of the tournament thus far. In his post-match interview, Federer admitted, as he rarely does, that he was exhausted, but he came away with a win—7-6, 1-6, 6-3, 6-4—in about three hours.
After a tight, breakless first set, Federer squeezed through a tiebreak, and then was promptly drowned in a set of Rafa Rage. It’s common, after he drops a close game or set, that Nadal will respond by somehow increasing his level: running down more balls, pressing more on return games, flattening out his serve, and hitting aces that he didn’t have in his arsenal a decade ago. (Think of this year’s French Open final, in which Nadal, insulted by the very idea that Dominic Thiem would dare challenge him, responded to a second-set loss by throttling the Austrian 6-1, 6-1 in the third and fourth.) That happened here: Nadal cruised through the second frame, whipping winners and drawing dreadful Federer shanks. But Federer responded in the third by leaning on his serve, breaking early, and taking decisive control of the match. In the booth, Chris Fowler and John McEnroe called the second set the worst set Federer had ever played at Wimbledon, and the third set Nadal’s worst.
Down a break in the fourth set, Nadal hit a flattened serve down the T, and Federer had to lunge to put a racket on it, barely looping a moon ball back into play. Nadal, of course, returned to his opponent’s backhand side. Federer responded by doing something he did much more 15 years ago than he does today: running around the shot to hit a forehand, falling away from the court awkwardly, past the ad court’s doubles alley. He then made a dead run to the end of the other alley to retrieve a ball Nadal placed in the corner, swiped a forehand … and slipped.
But instead of the point ending in a Nadal winner, Federer recovered and then turned directly to the net, chasing down a drop shot, reaching the ball a frame off the ground, and knifing it back past Nadal for a winner.
At 5-4, on the fourth of five match points, with Federer serving, the two played a 24-shot rally. On the fifth, moments later, Federer just needed a six-shot exchange to get to the finish line.
One of the most tedious parts of modern tennis is the lack of diversity of style between court types. The grass at Wimbledon is more similar to a hard court than it’s ever been. Since the Championships switched its seed blend in the early 2000s, baseliners have thrived, and long rallies from the back of the court have become the norm. Rallies at Wimbledon and Roland Garros tend to look different only after some squinting, and the majority of the players throughout the draws there play the same way: like Novak Djokovic, but way worse.
Federer and Nadal have always been a compelling pair because of all of their contrasts: one calm and wiry, the other all biceps flexes and nose twitches. This, too, makes for one-of-a-kind shotmaking. On the grass, even the modern rye blend, Federer hits through the court with an eye to the net. His backhand, once nearly reduced to a weak, error-prone slice by Nadal’s high-spinning shots, now shoots flat and induces errors. And Nadal, despite his history of knee injuries, moved as fast as he did in his 20s on Friday. This made for long, unpredictable rallies and strange point shapes. Federer and Nadal don’t just play impressive or long points, they play dramatic, confusing trajectories that make your heart skip. During the first three sets, I took two showers.
In the final, Federer’s 12th, he will face Djokovic, who has cruised through his draw en route to defending his title. Federer will be chasing his ninth title, and Djokovic his fifth. The two have met twice in the finals at Wimbledon: in 2014 and 2015, with Djokovic winning both, the first in a particularly tight five-set match. I’m not sure what I think of Federer’s odds; he’s lost his last four meetings with Djokovic at a Slam, and hasn’t beaten him at a major since Wimbledon in 2012. But a lot of time has passed since the two played best-of-five in Melbourne in 2016, and the rye is faster than any other court on the circuit and slippery (really slippery over these past two weeks) and suited to an attacking game.
The prospect of the final has already taken some of the air out of Friday’s thriller; such are the hazards of having a Big Three. But if anybody had wondered whether Nadal-Federer matches were holding the tour back more than it was driving it forward, it should be clear that there isn’t much reason to fret. The light hasn’t quite left the court yet.