Eleven years after a starburst of flashbulbs heralded the conclusion to perhaps the greatest tennis match ever played, Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal are booked to do it all over again on the Wimbledon grass. The pair have had 22 duels since that indelible July evening in 2008, when the Spaniard defied the darkness to topple the champion, but none of them at the All England Club, scene of their most cherished battle. When they file down the Centre Court steps on Friday afternoon, they will evoke both a rush of nostalgia for the sport’s past and a powerful sense of wonder that this contest still represents its present.
It took less time for Torvill and Dean to reunite for a second Winter Olympics than it has for Federer and Nadal to arrange an encore on the lawns of SW19. The interventions of Novak Djokovic and Andy Murray, coupled with Nadal’s episodes of fragility on his least favourite surface, have conspired to keep them apart here for over a decade. But the 40th instalment of an intoxicating dynamic, borne of that riveting contrast between Swiss fluidity and Balearic brawn, is back on the grandest stage of all.
A month shy of his 38th birthday, Federer could have packed himself off to the invitational doubles by now. Nadal might be almost five years his junior, but he, too, has been the subject of as many premature career obituaries as Tiger Woods. That the pair should have glided so smoothly into this year’s semi-finals, dropping just three sets between them, confounds all preconceptions of the limits to sporting endurance.
They are fighting for the highest of stakes now. Federer’s record at Wimbledon, burnished yesterday by a four-set victory over Kei Nishikori that made him the only man ever to win 100 matches at the same slam, is likely to stand unchallenged for generations. Similarly, Nadal’s feats at Roland Garros, where he already holds a dozen singles titles, are far out of reach. The only score left to settle is their race to retire as the most decorated champion of all. Nadal is at his closest point in the chase since 2004, with 18 major titles to Federer’s 20, and in arguably the finest run of grass-court form he has produced. Although Djokovic, on 15 and climbing, could soon steal both their thunders, these two are grappling to determine their claims on immortality.
Somewhere behind that immaculately-groomed façade, Federer treasures the significance of a reunion with Nadal on his beloved grass. For now, though, he is more bothered by the memory of their last meeting, in Paris four weeks ago, where he took just nine games off Nadal in a straight-sets defeat, his poise thrown off by unusually high winds. “I feel like conditions were slightly different then,” he said, smiling. “It was so windy, it was just insane. This time, it’s all about how he has played so far, how I have played so far. Rafa can hurt anybody on any surface, he’s that good. He’s not just a clay-court specialist, as we know. But I hope it goes my way.”
On the evidence of his display against Nishikori, he has every chance. Granted, the loss of the first set had stirred anxiety among the Federer faithful – not least John Bercow, Speaker of the House of Commons, who reprised his “We all love you, Roger” bellowing last weekend by wearing a blue monogrammed T-shirt in tribute to his idol – but the Swiss simply flicked a switch thereafter. As he imposed constant pressure on Nishikori’s serve, while holding his own with relative ease, it was scant surprise when he closed out a 4-6, 6-1, 6-4, 6-4 triumph after 2½ hours.
For others, dropping a set would be a trigger for alarm. For Federer, however, it is no more trouble than swatting an irksome fly. “Even if I’m down a set or down a break, there’s no hurry,” he explained. “I stay calm. I feel good on court, like I have my one-two punch under control. I’m just very happy with how I’m hitting the ball. I feel good off the baseline, too, and that’s clearly going to be important for my next match.”
At almost every level, Friday's rejoining of Federer versus Nadal is an occasion to relish, as much for the aesthetic of the match-up as for the sheer improbability that is happening at all. There is a deeper, more troubling question, though, of how dismally short the next generation are falling in their pursuit. It is maybe the most mind-boggling statistic in tennis that only one active male player under the age of 28, Dominic Thiem, has even competed in a major final, let alone won one. By that age, Federer had already amassed 15 slam titles.
“It’s definitely not a regular time in tennis, because no one thought that Novak, Rafa and I would be so solid, so dominant for so many years,” he said. “Number one, we have stopped a lot of runs from the younger guys. Number two, were they as talented as us? Maybe not.” That much should again be evident when Federer and his most enduring foe renew a rivalry for their ages.
Roger Federer wins three sets to one
Kei Nishikori has played ten Grand Slam quarter finals and has lost nine of them (his best run is runner-up in the 2014 US Open). He's ranked seven in the world and has therefore run to form in this event. The big three's utter dominance continues and as Paul Hayward argued in today's paper, men's tennis could do with a shake
Or maybe not. Maybe we should just enjoy these three geniuses all being in the same era.
Novak Djokovic is through to the semis in straight sets. Rafael Nadal is 2-0 up and Federer, albeit after losing the opening set, has done the business here with ease. These three blokes are just playing a different game really. Cheers for following.
Federer 4-6 6-1 6-4 6-4 Nishikori
Wraps it up with an ace and, despite a hot start from Kei Nishikori, once Federer got his act together there was only going to be one winner. What can you do but glory in the enduring brilliance of Federer?
Federer* 4-6 6-1 6-4 5-4 Nishikori (* denotes next server)
Here's the moment. Not sure Kei has had too much luck with the bounce there but whatever, it's now 15-40. Two break points. He saves the first with a good serve. And then a long rally ends with Nishikori hitting long to the back of the court.
That is the break of serve.
Federer has changed his tactics on the second serve, not being so impatient, just building pressure and attacking Nishikori's weaker, forehand shot.
Federer serves for the match and a place in the semi-final.
Federer 4-6 6-1 6-4 4-4 Nishikori* (* denotes next server)
Possible moment here for Nishikori on the Federer second service at 30-30. Nishikori goes big with his backhand but it's six inches out the back. Federer holds.
Federer* 4-6 6-1 6-4 3-4 Nishikori (* denotes next server)
A double fault takes Nishikori to 30-30. A Federer challenge comes to nothing on the baseline.
Game Nishikori. The aforementioned online bookie has pushed Federer out to 1-40.
Federer 4-6 6-1 6-4 3-3 Nishikori* (* denotes next server)
Federer has held service in a flash.
Federer* 4-6 6-1 6-4 2-3 Nishikori (* denotes next server)
At 15-30, Roger Federer plays the shot of the match as he unfurls a 91mph running crosscourt backhand winner. That was absolutely unbelievable. 15-40 and Kei has to dig deep. And he does! Saves the two break points, and it is deuce. And it's soon deuce for a second time as Federer hits a service return into acres of space. But Nishori holds.
He has saved four break points so far in this set... how long can he keep that up?
Federer 4-6 6-1 6-4 2-2 Nishikori* (* denotes next server)
Roger again holds with some authority.
Federer* 4-6 6-1 6-4 1-2 Nishikori (* denotes next server)
Nishikori saves a break point in this game as well and I have to say that it feels like a matter of time here on his serve. Not that he is serving badly by any means. And a good serve into the wide wilds of the van court wraps this up.
Federer 4-6 6-1 6-4 1-1 Nishikori* (* denotes next server)
Roger holds the serve. One online bookie has him at 1-50 to win the match from here. Oof.
Federer* 4-6 6-1 6-4 0-1 Nishikori (* denotes next server)
15-30 in the first game of the fourth set and obvs KN can ill afford any nonsense. Gets it to 30-30 but a tired looking groundstroke into the net gives Fed a first bp. But Kei clings on.
Federer 4-6 6-1 6-4 Nishikori* (* denotes next server)
Massive moment in the match! 30-40, a break point, Nishikori goes big at the serve and it's just a few inches out. he sinks to his haunches. Federer then produces a nerveless volley to move within a point of the third set. And then with set point in his hands, he puts a volley wide! Surprising stuff. Back to deuce. Nishikori is again kicking himself as he puts a volley into the net, Federer wraps matters up with a no nonsense serve and volley and that's the third set.
The big three give you very few chances, and Nishikori had just the one break point in the set. On the upside, his second serve was more robust.
We go again.
Federer* 4-6 6-1 5-4 Nishikori (* denotes next server)
Federer will have to serve it out, then.
Federer 4-6 6-1 5-3 Nishikori* (* denotes next server)
Federer holds, Nishikori will serve to stay in the third set.
Speaker making himself heard
John 'we all love you, Roger' Bercow is back at Wimbledon, giving even the most helpless Federer tragics a run for their money pic.twitter.com/SzRB7IA7sy
— Oliver Brown (@oliverbrown_tel) July 10, 2019
Federer* 4-6 6-1 4-3 Nishikori (* denotes next server)
"Crunch time for Nishikori," says Boris Becker as Federer turns up the head. It's 15-40, it's Nishikori's second serve and he has toughed it out in a 19-shot rally (the longest of the match) to save the first break point. Ace out wide to save the second BP! Federer challenges again but to no avail. But Nishikori drills into the net now and gives Federer a third BP. Saves it again with the wide serve.
Second deuce. Lovely forehand pass from Federer. Third deuce. Nish not able to get the first serve in. Having identified a weakness in the Nishikori second serve, Federer is over attacking it, according to Becker. Looking to hit winners off it each time - why not just get the ball back and build pressure, Becker asks.
A beaut of a backhand drive gives Roger his fourth break point. And now he gives Nishikori the eyes and sends him the wrong way, launching a forehand down the line to break the serve and I daresay signal the beginning of the end for KN.
Federer 4-6 6-1 3-3 Nishikori* (* denotes next server)
Federer has been more or less trouble-free in his service games and, a double fault notwithstanding, he's through this one to 15 without and problem. Trouble for Kei is that he is unable to put any pressure on the Federer serve which means that his own serve doesn't get much respite from the pressure, if you know what I mean.
Federer* 4-6 6-1 3-2 Nishikori (* denotes next server)
A typically, endearingly awful challenge from Federer. Well out. But he's got Kei in his sights here as he smashes home a winner to make it 15-30. Hard backhand from Kei levels it up and he holds.
Federer 4-6 6-1 2-2 Nishikori* (* denotes next server)
Roger holds that easily.
Federer* 4-6 6-1 1-2 Nishikori (* denotes next server)
Nishikori's second serve is getting the treatment here, but he gets enough of his first serves in to hold on.
Federer 4-6 6-1 1-1 Nishikori* (* denotes next server)
Federer rattles through that service game.
Federer* 4-6 6-1 0-1 Nishikori (* denotes next server)
Nishikori's serve starting to look a bit powderpuff, especially the 80-ish mph second edition. point of the match so far at 40-30, both players with some great shotmkaing and determination. Kei puts one into the net! Deuce and this feels a big moment for Kei. He cannot go a break down here or RF will run away with it. Federer wins the next point to give himself an early third set break point, but Nishikori produces a wide ace. Back to deuce. Better second serve this time and Fed cannot get it back. But deuce again now. He gets it done and holds, pumping his fist at the box - and coach Michael Chang.
Federer 4-6 6-1 Nishikori* (* denotes next server)
Daddy's home. Federer wraps that up with total control and Kei Nishikori trudges off the court for a comfort break or whatever. Federer wins the second set 6-1. Still only got 51% of his first serves in, but he won 100% of them.
Federer* 4-6 5-1 Nishikori (* denotes next server)
Mistakes creeping in from Kei. Life moves fast on centre court. Before you know it, he's 15-40 and on his second serve, Federer swats that away with something like disdain and it's 5-1 and a double break.
Federer 4-6 4-1 Nishikori* (* denotes next server)
... and Roger holds with even more ease.
Federer* 4-6 3-1 Nishikori (* denotes next server)
Federer 4-6 3-0 Nishikori* (* denotes next server)
Federer holds that service game with authority. Warning bells must be ringing for KN now...
Federer* 4-6 2-0 Nishikori (* denotes next server)
Danger here! Kei is 0-40 in a flash and soon on the back foot in this rally as well, Federer stamping his authority on the situation with a powerful drive down the tramline for a break of serve
Federer 4-6 1-0 Nishikori* (* denotes next server)
Kei again wiling to attack the Fed second serve, and gets some opportunities here becuase Federer is not finding the mark too often. But an easy enough hold for the Swiss all told.
First set stats
12 unforced errors from Roger, three double faults.
The only stat of concern for Nishikori, perhaps, would be that he had five break points but only converted one.
Federer* 4-6 Nishikori (* denotes next server)
Federer with a sensational return to set up an easy overhead kill, makes it 15-30. Nishikori has been on that net cord several times with the serve. And he lets a point slip here that he should have won, Fed was gone for all money at the back of the court but Nish made a poor decision. 30-30 and he needs to take control here. And does! Comes to the net to win a nice little point. 40-30 and set point for the Japan star. And he wraps it up with some strong work down the lines. Kei Nishikori wins the first set 6-4.
Federer 4-5 Nishikori* (* denotes next server)
Federer through that service game with the minimum of fuss. Sun is out on centre. Kei will try to serve this out next.
Federer* 3-5 Nishikori (* denotes next server)
Best shot of the match so far from RF as he peels off a trademark, imperious backhand service-return winner to make it deuce. And now the best rally of the match as Federer starts to really use the whole court, sending Kei all over the grass to take it back to deuce again. Another error from Federer though releases the pressure and Nishikori is closing in on this first set.
Federer 3-4 Nishikori* (* denotes next server)
Federer holds his serve. But opportunities to break the Japanese player's serve are running out.
Federer* 2-4 Nishikori (* denotes next server)
Federer makes his tenth unforced error. Nishikori is going for his shots, looking to win points quickly. A failed drop shot gives Federer a glimmer at 40-30. And when a Nishikori backhand, under (relatively) little pressure, finds the net it is deuce and Kei has his first pressure moment. Federer raises his game now! Pressuring the second serve, Federer kills it off with a backhand volley and he has his first break point of the match. Nishikori hands tough and saves the point from the back of the court. Serves out the game with more brave attacking play.
Federer 2-3 Nishikori* (* denotes next server)
Federer not quite at it yet. He elects to leave a ball but it lands on the baseline just by his feet. And now a double fault from Roger. Break point now for Nishi again! That's five he's seen now. Federer saves it with his serve and sees out the game. But Kei's strategy is working well so far...
Federer* 1-3 Nishikori (* denotes next server)
30-30 and Fed sniffs an opening. But Kei comes to the net again and takes control of this point. His coach has stated that this is a clear plan.
Federer 1-2 Nishikori* (* denotes next server)
And Federer is in trouble again on his serve! 0-40 before you know it. Claws back one, two, three break points as the serve starts to fire. Some big serving gets Federer out of jail here.
Federer* 0-2 Nishikori (* denotes next server)
And the Japanese player wins the first three point on his own serve, using some excellent spin and slice to upset the Federer rhythm early on.
But a fine passing shot from Federer and a blistering service return winner make Kei work.
He holds on though to consolidate that break.
Federer 0 Nishikori* 1 (* denotes next server)
An early upset! Nishikori breaks the Federer serve to 15. A superb game from him, coming to the net, hitting his lengths and angles perfectly and giving the great man something to think about on every point.
Players have knocked up
It's a headband each for the players. Wintour in the Federer box. These players have not met at Wimbledon before. They've met once in a slam, when Roger won at the Aussie Open.
The task facing Nishikori
despite him being the No 8 seed, very few at Wimbledon expect Nishikori to even win a set today against Federer. Nishikori himself hinted on Monday at the difficulties he is likely to face: “I know it’s not going to be easy, but I will enjoy for sure.”
Nishikori’s experience at reaching quarter-finals may also count against him, since his experience has invariably been to lose them. He has lost eight of the 11 he has reached, earning him a reputation as the equivalent of Everton in the Premier League; the best of the rest, but unlikely to trouble the elite. There has even been a joke doing the rounds that Nishikori should be substituted once he reaches the quarter-finals of a major, such is the inevitability of him bowing out at this stage.
Also on court at the moment
Here's Roger warming up
Novak Djokovic has put Goffin away
Meaning that Federer will be on court in a few minutes.
The big three have
been carrying all before them this year. Djokovic is 2-0 up against Goffin and looks a racing certainty to wrap that up. He's only lost one set so far. Roger Federer lost a set in his first round match but has been cruising since then. I watched him dish out a complete pasting to poor old Matteo Berrettini in the last round. It was a complete mismatch - and the Italian is ranked 20 in the world!
Nadal has likewise only lost one set - and he had much the tougher draw, because he has had to face Kyrgios and Tsonga.
In a change to your racecard
This match will be blogged by me, Alan Tyers, and not the mighty Rob Bagchi. Tennis fans loss' is cricket fans' gain: the Silver Fox is currently tinkering the keyboard on a thrilling Cricket World Cup semi.
Roger Federer will begin his match on centre court after the conclusion of Djokovic vs Goffin. JJ Bull is on the ones and twos for that.
Roger Federer believes Kei Nishikori is ready to challenge for grand slam titles as he takes on the man he has played only once before at a major, beating him in five sets at the Australian Open two years ago.
The Japan No1, US Open finalist in 2014 and eighth seed here has, for the fourth time in his career, dropped one set or less on his run to the quarter-finals.
"I think it's going to be tough," Federer said. "He's getting into quarters with a lot of energy. I remember some of the slams recently he arrived into the later stages ... with maybe some tough matches going into it. So far it's been really easy for him.
"I think he's ready. I'm a big fan of his game. I think he's got one of the best backhands in the game that we have right now. He's a great return player. Solid mentally. I always thought he was a great talent."
Nishikori knows he has his work cut out against Federer, who is chasing his ninth Wimbledon title.
"I'm sure that I have to play good tennis to beat Roger, because he's the best player on the grass," Nishikori said.
"I'm happy to be playing Roger now because I think I'm in good shape now. I know it's not going to be easy but I will enjoy it for sure."