If you asked the bookies, then Rafael Nadal was the odds-on favourite to win the semi-final against his arch-rival Roger Federer at Wimbledon on Friday. Younger, newly-energized, just demolished Federer at a Roland Garros semi-final, a head-to head record of 24 wins to Nadal against Federer’s 15—what’s not to bet for Nadal’s chances? The last time they met on this court—that classic five-setter in the 2008 Wimbledon final—had every bit of drama, skill, grit, strength, luck, rain delays that a tennis lover can dream of. Yes, Nadal had got the better of Federer on the latter’s most successful surface too.
After Friday’s four-setter semi-final, that head-to-head rivalry now stands at 24-16. Because sometimes, old dogs teach younger ones a few new tricks. And if you ignore the last paragraph, in their last seven meetings, Federer has managed to defeat Nadal six times, which includes one walkover at Indian Wells this year. That is, barring this year’s French Open semi-final, the last time Nadal defeated Federer was in 2014 at an Australian Open semi-final.
Federer will be 38 on August 8, next month that is. He has defied all odds, increased his cache of Grand Slam titles to still stand at the top of the tally. Federer is the second oldest man to reach a Grand Slam final in the Open Era, that honour going to the great Australian Ken Rosewall, who reached the finals of both Wimbledon and the US Open aged 39, in 1974.
Friday’s semi-final was a nail-biter and yet, not. The first set was tightly fought, with Federer winning the tiebreak in spite of being down a break at the start. The second set saw Nadal fight back with all the weapons in his arsenal to win it 6-1. A few more unforced errors from Federer especially in his service games also helped Nadal get the double break.
But in the third set, something turned. Suddenly those big guns were not enough. Or rather, were just too much. Brute force was shut down by subtlety. Federer unleashed all his majesty and turned the tables on his long-time rival. Most of the longer rallies went Federer’s way. The backhand became his biggest weapon for all. The arrows in Federer’s quiver were truer and swifter. Third set to Federer—6-3.
The fourth set was hard-fought. More than the third or indeed the second. But except for the last game when Nadal put up a strong challenge as Federer served for the match, the momentum was all with Federer. Even if the 8-time champion did not manage to convert all those break point opportunities he had and even if his fans tore their hair out when he didn’t. Federer managed to get that one break finally at 5-4.
This may not have been the “classic” everyone was waiting for. But it was a match played at the highest level with every player giving it his all. And in the end, Federer had 51 winners to Nadal’s 32. He ran a bit more than Nadal overall, despite being five years older. Federer went to the net 33 times and won 25 of those. This was not one of those matches where Nadal dictated play from the back of the court although as one commentator pointed out, if Nadal stood any further back, they would have to extend the court! The last stat of 126 winners for Federer to 117 for Nadal gives you an idea of how the match went.
But for fans, the sublime perfection of Federer pitted against the dogged determination of Nadal gives their encounters the extra zing. And this time, so much of that heartache which Nadal has caused Federer’s massive fan army was forgotten on Centre Court as Federer raised his arms in triumph.