WIMBLEDON — It was billed, as it has been since the two first crossed paths 15 years ago, as a battle between two heavyweights, two superheroes going toe-to-toe on the big screen that is the illustrious Wimbledon Centre Court.
But this wasn’t Ben Affleck versus Henry Cavill, far from it. Outside of the French Open, it’s hard to pinpoint a time when Roger Federer vs. Rafael Nadal has disappointed. And the last time these two met at Wimbledon, it went down as the greatest match ever played, a five-set tussle in favour of Nadal, 9-7, in the fifth.
The finish didn’t come late into the night this time around, but the decisive fourth set brought all that has made this rivalry among the greatest in sports history to a head. Federer stroked that masterful forehand to break Nadal’s serve early on, which pushed Nadal to the brink and brought out the soul-crushing relentlessness that has been the trademark of his career.
Serving to stay in the match at 3-5, Nadal took away two match points with booming serves before holding on, hardly characteristic of his game in the early days. Over to you, Mr. Federer.
As the crowd rose to its feet in recognition of what could possibly be the final game, Nadal killed the buzz by tending to his feet at his chair as Federer stood ready to serve. It was gamesmanship at its finest, but the ever cool and calm 20-time slam winner was unfazed. Once Nadal took his place deep in the deuce court to return, Federer sent down a thunderous ace. Who would blink? The spectators certainly wouldn’t.
Nadal battled for 15-all, then 30-all, before Federer shanked an overhead that sent the crowd into hysteria. An opening, one that Nadal has taken advantage of so many times in his career against Federer, but this was just another moment to show that the rivalry has changed some.
There was a time when Federer hardly stood a chance in long rallies against Nadal, but the tables were turned here. Despite there not being too many of them, when the points got extended, it was Federer who kept finding the answers.
“Winning long rallies is always a nice feeling,” Federer said when asked if reversing that trend may have impacted Nadal’s mindset. “At the same time, there were so few of them when you’re going deep in a rally like this ... I wonder if it took something out of him. I don’t think so because on clay he he does that in his sleep. Why shouldn’t he be able to have a few long rallies and it deflate him?
“He’s a champ, I’m a champ. We know how to handle a rally like that.”
And then the rallies came, and the crowd losing its collective breath and mind. A searing rally ended with Nadal finding the net on break point, and then another had Nadal pull off a magical forehand winner to save a third Federer match point. He saved a fourth, too, with a backhand when he seemed out of the rally, and it was truly gut check time for Federer.
Federer has spoken previously about how grateful he is to share the stage with Nadal and Djokovic because of how they’ve pushed him to be greater, and in that moment, when Nadal would have made others including the Federer of old bow down to his will, the 37-year-old kept his head up and kept pushing on.
Much to the crowd’s delight, he finally closed it out in dramatic fashion and earned himself the reward of World No. 1 and 15-time Grand Slam champion Novak Djokovic in the final.
“This is like a school: the day of the test you’re not going to read, I don’t know, how many books that day? You don’t have time anyhow. It’s quite clear the work was done way before. I think that’s why I was able to produce a good result today,” Federer said.
The match was every bit the boxing match that was expected, but this edition of the rivalry meant it kicked off in untraditional fashion. Both players were firing away with their serves, culminating with a first set tiebreak that had the two legends exchanging blows in equal measure.
Playing each other for the 40th time, the two know each other’s game like the back of their hands. There’s no shot the other hasn’t seen, no tactic that hasn’t been previously worked out. Sometimes these matches can just come down to who is bravest when the moments are biggest.
“I think the moment you’ve played somebody probably more than 15 times, you know, especially in recent years also a few times, there’s not that much more left out there. Especially, you know where the players go when it really matters, how much can you still surprise somebody?
“At the end of the day, it comes very much down to who’s better on the day, who’s in a better mental place, who’s got more energy left, who’s tougher when it really comes down the crunch.”
For Federer, the crunch may have been the first set, after which he has a tremendous record when he wins it. And while both may have sensed just how crucial that tiebreak to open the match was, it was the Swiss maestro who hit harder and smarter to win four straight points to take it 7-3 along with frontrunner status.
"That first set was huge, to get the lead and try to protect it,” Federer said after the match. “It was a joy to play."
The Spaniard may be the greatest fighter the world of sport has ever seen, and so it was no surprise to see him conjure some moments of sheer brilliance to take the second set 6-1 and level the match. There was certainly a drop in intensity towards the end of the second set from Federer, possibly an effort to conserve energy after Nadal picked up the double-break.
Looking to dictate tempo once again in the third, Federer repeatedly put Nadal under pressure with deep returns in the third set, and much like the fourth, forced him to bend and bend till he finally broke. Nadal just wasn’t able to return the favour. After arguably looking the best of the Big Three in the run-up to the semis, Nadal felt he wasn’t quite able to hit the highest of notes.
“I didn’t receive well today,” Nadal said in this post-match press conference. “When that happens, he’s in advantage, he’s in control of the match generally because you feel little bit more under pressure than him.
“I think, today, the backhand didn’t work as good as in the previous rounds. I was little bit too worried about my backhand, so I was not able to move with freedom to the forehand.”
The win improved Federer’s all-time record against Nadal to 16-24, and 4-10 at Grand Slams, although that number is a bit skewed by the Spaniard’s 6-0 record at Roland Garros.
Now, it’ll be another legend against whom he has a losing record against that he has to best on Sunday. How many more does he have left in him? While some may question whether the end is near, Nadal has no doubt that the trio can keep going.
“It’s great to be part of this rivalry, be in the middle of these three players that achieved that much in this sport in the same era,” Nadal said. “Is something that is going to be difficult to see it again. We are not done, so, things continue.
“Just have been another episode this afternoon.”
What an episode it was, and to think, there’s another one coming on Sunday.