Eleven years had passed between the last “Fedal” meeting at Wimbledon – in the legendary 2008 title match – and yesterday’s semi-final. To the delight of all 15,000 enraptured fans on Centre Court, it was worth the wait.
There are few sporting events where the first reaction is not to clap or stand up but just to laugh in disbelieving wonder. A Usain Bolt sprint. A Simone Biles double layout. And at least two dozen impossible rallies in this four-set, 3hr 3min masterpiece.
When it comes to miracle shots, Federer already has the greatest highlight reel of any player, past or present. But we might have to take it apart and rebuild it after this. There was one backhand drive, played at a dead run against a Nadal drop-shot that had almost touched the turf for a second time, which surely defied the laws of physics as it caught the line. Even Nadal had to stop and applaud that one.
The magic of Fedal XL could be seen in the fact that stewards shut down access to Henman Hill to prevent a dangerous crush from developing. “Overcrowding issues” were blamed for the closure. On Centre Court, overexcitement ran out of control as fans couldn’t help yelping or screaming or simply gasping in the middle of these all-singing and all-dancing rallies.
Actually, we can except the first set from that rule, because this story had a strangely colourless introduction. Both players snapped straight into their rhythm on serve, so that the first point of the match was a Federer ace and Nadal opened his own account almost as quickly, sending down three unanswered deliveries without having to play another shot.
When starting the point, Nadal has never been known as a man with a blunderbuss up his sleeve. But he has found a new level this year, serving harder and more effectively than at any previous Wimbledon. The first set felt almost as if we were watching John Isner playing Kevin Anderson – the equivalent semi-final that turned into a six-and-a-half hour serving duel in this same Friday evening slot last year.
It was only in the tie-break that the level began to climb – or rather switch on, because it happened in an instant. Nadal opened this microcosmic mini-match with an inch-perfect dink onto the corner of the court, running forward at full tilt to retrieve a silky Federer drop shot. When he followed up with a couple more unanswered serves, everything looked comfy - but then came the twist, as Federer pressed the button marked “Turbo”.
Having stayed pegged to the baseline up until now, Federer suddenly ghosted into the court. The rhythm of the exchanges changed, becoming staccato – even frantic – as he punched volleys and buried smashes. Five points were needed, and all five delivered in a blur of white shoes on green grass. Nadal must have felt like the patsy in a roadside conjuring game, turning over his chosen card to find that it wasn’t the Queen of Diamonds after all.
Nadal wasn’t going to take this indignity lightly. He never does. He was up off the canvas quickly and now the real fight began. The same serves that had been untouchable in the first set were suddenly cracking like eggshells. Nadal staved off two break points early in the second, then went on a rampage: ten straight points to begin with, which became five straight games. Federer, according to the watching doubles player Mahesh Bhupathi, was conserving his energy rather than contesting every point. He is almost 38, after all.
Federer certainly surged back in the third set, using that feline movement to press forward again and dominate from the forecourt. From now on, Nadal’s serve was constantly under pressure, and it was only his famous resilience that kept the damage down to one break against him in each of the last two sets. The shots he produced in the penultimate game of the match, fending off two match points and forcing Federer to serve it out himself, were probably the best he hit all day.
There was still more drama as Federer saw another two match points come and go on his own serve. A lesser man would have blinked at this stage, allowing his mind to wander to the potential ignominy of allowing his advantage to slip away at the last. But we are talking about probably the greatest front-runner in tennis history. Rather than tightening up, Federer increased his own weight of shot, playing on some ineffable autopilot as he finally forced Nadal into one final overhit backhand. he was home, by a 7-6, 1-6, 6-3, 6-4 margin.
“I’m exhausted,” said Federer as he came off the court. “It was tough at the end. Rafa played some unbelievable shots to stay in the match. The match was played at a very high level. The crowd was amazing. Battles with Rafa are always special, so it was nice
“I had spells where I was serving very well. I thought the biggest points went my way, the tight ones in the long rallies. He plays with such velocities and spins you’re not sure what will happen when you make contact. But it was a joy to play today.”
That assessment was surely supported by the statistics, which showed Federer’s extraordinary tally of 51 winners (40 per cent of his total points) to heavily outweigh Nadal’s 32. His first serve was firing too, with 68 per cent – including 14 aces – landing in the service box.
Whenever Federer pushes that first-serve tally up towards 70 per cent at Wimbledon, he is almost untouchable. But now he will have to face Novak Djokovic, the man who defeated him in two of his last three finals here. Surprisingly, Federer has never beaten both of his leading rivals in the same major. But if he can bottle the genius of this performance, and uncork it again tomorrow, he could be looking at a ninth Wimbledon title.
"It lived up to the hype," Federer added. From coming out of the gates, we were both playing very well. Then the climax at the end with the crazy last game – some tough rallies there. It had everything at the end, which was great, I guess. I'm just relieved it's all over at this point.
"But it's definitely going to go down as one of my favorite matches to look back at. Because it's Rafa, it's at Wimbledon, the crowds were into it, great weather. I hope this gives me a huge boost for the finals on Sunday. It's great on many levels. But now I've got to put my head down and stay focused."
I’m exhausted. It was tough at the end. Rafa played some unbelievable shots to stay in the match. I enjoyed it. The crowd were amazing.
I had spells where I was serving very well and probably the biggest points in the match went my way. That first set was huge as well, to get the lead.
Novak played great against Bautista Agut. He’s supreme again. He’s not No 1 by chance. He’s been so good for the last year. I’m very excited to say the least
Federer 7-6(3), 1-6, 6-3, 6-4 Nadal
Nadal removes his left shoe and takes off his ankle-strapping. Federer to serve for the match. Federer begins with an ace, very wide that juts trimmed the line and scuppered Nadal's challenge. 15-love. Nadal grinds out a long rally until Federer nets a backhand bit Federer bites back with a deep half-volley, smoked with wristy menace. Federer burns his last challenge to check whether his forehand was too long. It was. 30-all.
Blimey! Federer frames an overhead long. Nadal has break point. It's a classic point, Federer triumphant at the end of 11 fizzing strokes when Nadal nets his drop.
Federer moves to advantage with two terrific volleys, giving Nadal no chance to chase down the second.
Nadal defends the match point at the end of another hall of fame rally with a forehand, the 24th stroke, that bends outwards and kisses the line.
Federer unrolls the ace. Match point again.
Nadal neuters it with a glorious crosscourt backhand pass as Federer came to the net.
Federer serve-volleys on the back of another serve up the T. Another match point. And he takes it, this time, when Nadal pings a backhand centimetres too long.
Game, set and match Federer.
Federer* 7-6, 1-6, 6-3, 5-4 Nadal (*denotes next server)
Federer nets a low half-volley at 30-15 but then Nadal serves and volleys and carves the volley into the net. 40-30. Federer pastes a forehand pass from the centre right to the limit of Nadal's deuce court. Deuce. Federer then nails a return but challenges the legality of the serve when he had no need to. Premature adjudication. Federer defends the game point with a crosscourt pass then moves to advantage and match point. Nadal defends it with a fizzing serve down the middle and moves to game point with an ace. Federer defends it with a lovely backhand and then Nadal nets his backhand.
Second match point. Nadal goes wide on the serve and Federer floats his backhand return too long. Nadal moves back to advantage with a ferocious backhand hat allows him into the net to play the sweetest drop winner. He closes out the hold with another ace.
Federer 7-6, 1-6, 6-3, 5-3 Nadal* (*denotes next server)
Nadal maintains his resistance but it is cracked by Federer's relentless precision with centre-line serves. Nadal serves to stay in the match.
Federer* 7-6, 1-6, 6-3, 4-3 Nadal (*denotes next server)
Federer caps off a sensational rally with a running cross-court back-hand pass that paints the line. He took it low on the half-volley and absolutely rinsed it. Nadal keeps his composure to close out the hold after that voodoo stroke.
Federer 7-6, 1-6, 6-3, 4-2 Nadal* (*denotes next server)
The crowd treats Nadal to a rousing reception after he hangs in to win a 26-stroke rally to move to 15-30 as Federer's first serve goes on holiday. Nadal berates himself when he misses a chance off Federer's kick second serve which would have made it 15-40, instead Federer wins the point by virtue of the unforced error and rattles off the next two points.
This tennis match with Nadal and Federer is simply sublime. Incredible points by two incredible champions. On grass!
— Norman Ornstein (@NormOrnstein) July 12, 2019
Federer* 7-6, 1-6, 6-3, 3-2 Nadal (*denotes next server)
Strong hold from Nadal, to 15, the forehand back in the groove.
Federer 7-6, 1-6, 6-3, 3-1 Nadal* (*denotes next server)
Federer continues to win the longer rallies. It's like he's pinched Nadal's USP. He closes out the hold to love with an ace.
Federer* 7-6, 1-6, 6-3, 2-1 Nadal (*denotes next server)
Federer attacks Nadal's serve relentlessly to move to love-30 then Nadal acknowledges a spawny net cord that allows him to go to 15-30. Federer opens up the court with a backhand cross to set up the winner. Two break points. Nadal thwacks a crosscourt forehand to defend the first. Federer, a terrible challenger, questions the validity of a first serve. Nadal then challenges when his first serve is demonstrably wide and Federer breaks his serve.
Federer 7-6, 1-6, 6-3, 1-1 Nadal* (*denotes next server)
Federer's remarkable elasticity keep him in a rally that would have defied most younger players takes him to 40-15. Nadal runs around a backhand to smite a glorious crosscourt forehand winner but Federer holds to 30.
Federer* 7-6, 1-6, 6-3, 0-1 Nadal (*denotes next server)
Federer comes out fighting for that early break but Nadal holds off his surge, takes the game to 30 and turns to his box to punch the air and cry 'Vamos!' at his box.
He wears a magic hat etc
Federer 7-6, 1-6, 6-3 Nadal* (*denotes next server)
Roger's solid first serve earns him the first two points (as does a jammy bounce off the baseline). With Nadal at the net, brought there by a crosscourt, Federer smokes a pass up the line for three set points. He needs only one and holds to love.
Federer* 7-6, 1-6, 5-3 Nadal (*denotes next server)
After a momentary scare at love-30, the cry of 'C.mon Rafa' ignites Nadal to win the next four points without being tested. Federer to serve for the set.
Federer 7-6, 1-6, 5-2 Nadal* (*denotes next server)
Apologies for the error with our scoreline after the last game there. 'Another Rafa point won by Roger,' says Andrew Castle, meaning his ability to grind out long rallies and erode the reliability of Nadal's backhand. At 40-15, Federer serve-volleys and smashes the fifth shot of the point to hold.
Federer* 7-6, 1-6, 4-2 Nadal (*denotes next server)
Nadal slips, still gets up to the net to dink it back over but can't get the lob back over when he scrambles back. Love-30. Nadal finds his serve mojo but then pings his backhand off Federer's return long. 15-40. Two break points. Nadal neuters the first with a virtual ace that Federer reaches but no'but just and defends the second with a blistering forehand. Deuce. Nadal cleans up with two excellent serves that are too hot for Federer to get back.
Federer 7-6, 1-6, 4-1 Nadal* (*denotes next server)
Nadal won't lie down and hammers two winners to move to love-30, two points off a break-back. Federer defends with a kicking second serve that Nadal pummels long. But a first double-fault for Federer gives Nadal two break-back points. The wide serve tees him up for an overhead winner with his second stroke. And he defends the second in a gasp-inducing rally with top-spun forehands that paint the lines until Nadal misjudges. At deuce Nadal earns a third break point which Federer wrests back after a fine serve. A marathon rally ends when Nadal misses a forehand cross with the 25th stroke of the point. And Roger holds when bunts his backhand into the net.
Federer turns Nadal/Murray and pumps his fist. Valuable hold from love-30 down and on second serve.
25shot rally between Federer and Nadal is what poetry in action must feel like. #Wimbledon
— Pankaj Ahuja (@panku_) July 12, 2019
Federer* 7-6, 1-6, 3-1 Nadal (*denotes next server)
Both have upped the aggressive intent on their service games and Federer has reverted to attacking serves in his deuce court with a short-arm forehand thrash to Nadal's feet. It sets him up for a fierce backhand drive down the line. 30-all and Federer moves to advantage by defending a forehand down the line deep and whipping it back crosscourt. And he converts it by outgunning Nadal at the net to end a superb rally with a sliced backhand volley winner. Federer breaks.
Federer 7-6, 1-6, 2-1 Nadal* (*denotes next server)
Ditto. Federer holds without any damage and closes it out when Nadal frames a return that parts James Keothavong's hair in the umpire's chair.
Federer* 7-6, 1-6, 1-1 Nadal (*denotes next server)
Another nifty Nadal hold. We're back to first set territory.
Federer 7-6, 1-6, 1-0 Nadal* (*denotes next server)
Federer does regroup and holds to love. He needed a moment, gave his head a shake and controlled his frustration.
Federer* 7-6, 1-6 Nadal (*denotes next server)
Federer needs to regroup quickly. Nadal holds to love, his return now misfiring as much as his service game. Nadal hasn't been made to battle this last four games. It has been about errors rather than winners.
Federer 7-6, 1-5 Nadal* (*denotes next server)
Two big forehand errors from Federer allow Nadal to earn the double-break. Roger's game has fallen off a
Federer* 7-6, 1-4 Nadal (*denotes next server)
Federer in a lull. Nadal has covered so much ground, kept going in so many rallies that one wonders how much zip Federer has in his legs right now. He is given a chance at the net, gets there but nets his crosscourt drop. Nadal holds to 15, having won 12 of the last 13 points.
If anything, Nadal was stoked by losing 1st set tiebreak. He breaks Federer early 2d set. Both such great servers, a break is massive.
— Liz Clarke (@lizclarketweet) July 12, 2019
Federer 7-6, 1-3 Nadal* (*denotes next server)
Two forehand unforced errors from Federer give Nadal three break points. It's been so intense and when he last took a break to change his racket, Federer did his impression of a snail. Federer's backhand cracks during a long defensive rally and Nadal breaks at the first attempt.
Federer* 7-6, 1-2 Nadal (*denotes next server)
Class from Federer. He flays a return to Nadal's feet then follows it in with a drop-shot winner. 15-30. After a long, athletic rally Nadal changes his mind at the last second, deciding to go crosscourt rather than up the line off Federer's drop shot and hooks it out. Two break points. Rafa defends the first in spite of Federer's booming forehand return, and the other off his second serve when Roger nets his backhand return. Deuce. Another backhand error from Federer after a handsome rally makes it advantage Nadal and he holds with an ace straight up the middle.
Federer 7-6, 1-1 Nadal* (*denotes next server)
Federer pastes a gorgeous back-hand low-half volley winner before Nadal fights back with a horrible, dipping forehand crosscourt and a brilliant pass with Federer at the net to move to break point. Federer defends it by forcing Nadal to chip up his return off a kicking forehand and smashing the winner. Deuce. Another sensational rally ends with Nadal's brute of a backhand that Federer can't get back over yet he defends the second break point at the net with a couple of drop shots before slicing a backhand winner. Nadal keeps going toe to toe, grinding Federer down until he overhits a forehand to give Federer advantage and he uses it to hold with a big serve. He is being thoroughly tested now.
Federer* 7-6, 0-1 Nadal (*denotes next server)
After an extremely long break with the king of slow play using every extra second before he resumes, Nadal serves and holds to 30. Federer's tactic of standing deep in his deuce court and firing over short-swing returns is messing with Nadal's rhythm.
No breaks. Another love hold. This is feeling more like Isner-Raonic than Federer-Nadal
— Christopher Clarey (@christophclarey) July 12, 2019
Federer 7-6 Nadal* (*denotes next server)
Nadal gets the mini-break immediately with a fantastically delicate chip up the line off Federer's crosscourt drop. His speed was amazing to get there.
Federer breaks back straightaway with a terrific return and Nadal holds with a centre-line serve. 1-2 with Federer to serve.
Federer holds the first then is broken again when he nets his backhand slice up the line. Tremendous defensive play from Nadal to hang in there. 2-3.
Federer breaks back with a fine volley that Nadal tries to lob back over him but spoons it a few centimetres too far. 3-3
Federer returns to Nadal's backhand to set up another break with a fizzing crosscourt forehand. He wins both service points to move 6-3 ahead and three set points.
He only needs one to warp it up in 56 minutes, again returning to Nadal's backhand, enjoying a net-cord and then smoking a forehand winner. His forehand is now zinging.
Federer 6-6 Nadal (*denotes next server)
Two scorching forehand winners from Federer tie it up at deuce, having managed to hit over three successive returns. Federer lines up the forehand down the line after a manipulating Nadal wide in the ad cart with a series of crosscourt slices but hooks it wide. Nadal closes out the hold and we head to the breaker.
Federer 6-5 Nadal* (*denotes next server)
Another hold to love, Federer. A young lad is pictured reading a book in the crowd and Andrew Castle weighs into him for his apostasy. Book-shaming. Truly a sign of the times. The fourth horseman of the apocalypse has placed one foot in a stirrup. .
Federer* 5-5 Nadal (*denotes next server)
First double-fault of the match is backed up by a couple of demon serves that skirt the centre line. Federer can't keep his returns in and Nadal moves to 40-15. He thinks he has aced to take the hold out wide but it is called out late. He accepts the call then fires another down the centre-line. Nadal swats his return out, challenges the call that the serve was legal, which it was.
Federer 5-4 Nadal* (*denotes next server)
A poor challenge notwithstanding, Federer calmly closes out his hold to 30 behind hot serves. His ability to hit his groundstrokes deep, matched by Nadal, is making it a very toe-to-toe affair when they do get into rallies. Like two sluggers.
Playing so often against Nadal and Djokovic made Federer learn to hit his backhand with so much more aggression.
— Rick Bonnell (@rick_bonnell) July 12, 2019
Federer* 4-4 Nadal (*denotes next server)
A first chink of light for Federer on Nadal's serve, earned by going to the net and a lucky net cord to take him to 15-30. Nadal defends with a fine second serve that puts Federer on the back foot throughout a mid-size rally until he cracks. Thirty-all. Nadal's backhand error gives Federer the first break point of the match. A spectacular rally ensues, with Nadal slicing some gorgeous forehands that arc high and drop on the baseline for a good 20 strokes or more until Federer nets his backhand. Nadal, having defended it, wraps up the hold with the one-two of his spitting serve and dominant forehand.
Federer 4-3 Nadal* (*denotes next server)
Still with serve and another pointless game for the returner, Federer clinically finishing it with a smash when Nadal, driven deep, tried to lob him.
Federer* 3-3 Nadal (*denotes next server)
Biff, bang, pow! Nadal holds to love, rattled off in under a minute.
Federer 3-2 Nadal* (*denotes next server)
Federer races to 40-love until Nadal unrolls that low crosscourt backhand, viciously whipped low over the net. Federer does not quail and holds comfortably to 15. Both have been all but perfect on their serves so far.
Three games into Federer vs Nadal and there are still empty seats in the Royal Box in a country with no shortage of royals pic.twitter.com/azxZeRU6x1
— Christopher Clarey (@christophclarey) July 12, 2019
Tommy Cooper was once said to have asked the Queen if she liked football. When she replied, ‘Not particularly,’ Tom asked if he could have her FA Cup final tickets.
Federer* 2-2 Nadal (*denotes next server)
Federer wins his first point on Nadal's serve with a backhand crosscourt slice that hits the whitewash and dies, giving Nadal no chance of chiselling out a return. Federer frames his return off Nadal's second serve to fall 30-15 behind and is beaten by a venomous forehand cross off his short return. Nadal secures the hold when Federer can't keep his backhand service-return in bounds. All on serve.
Federer 2-1 Nadal* (*denotes next server)
Because Nadal is so deep in his deuce court when receiving on the backhand, it invites Federer to serve wide and follow it into the net. Which he does to fire a volley winner in a match he, too, closes out without dropping a point, drilling an ace down the centre line to head for his seat.
— Pat Cash (@TheRealPatCash) July 12, 2019
Federer* 1-1 Nadal (*denotes next server)
Federer cannot get into the game at all despite two chances on Nadal's second serve until the last point and even then he fires his backhand into the tape and it bounces back on his side. Nadal holds to love.
Federer 1-0 Nadal* (*denotes next server)
After a good first serve from Federer to take the first point, Nadal hangs tough in a rally of almost 20 strokes until Federer makes the error, striking his forehand long. With Nadal very deep in his deuce court to receive, Federer smokes an ace wide and holds to 30 after a couple of overlong forehand groundstrokes from Nadal.
Federer will serve
It's very humid and sticky out there.
Sue Barker asks
One of the perennial Telegraph Sports desk questions: "If you can't get up for this, what can you get up for?" It's trite, but perhaps with more justification than is usually employed.
Out they come
Federer first to a resounding reception which is sustained when Nadal walks on. Both are wearing bandanas. Who would have thought that Nadal's hair would be the first to go?
The players will actually emerge at 4.30pm
Had the preceding semi-final finished after 4pm, there would have been a 20 minute interval but because it ended at 3.59:50, the regulations state it would be a 30 minute break. Time for three pints ...
Noval Djokovic is through to his sixth Wimbledon final
The defending champion has beaten Roberto Bautista Agut in four sets. He defeated Rafael Nadal to win his first singles title and Roger Federer to claim his second and third. The second semi-final will begin in about 20 minutes. Who would he rather play?
Fortune spoils us once more. How many times have we thought that the latest instalment of this great rivalry had to be the last, that at 37 and 33 respectively sooner or later their desire and ability to equip their competitive fervour with the physical power and stamina it demands had to expire. And yet another year passes and Federer and Nadal are still here. We notice signs of our own ageing more than we notice it in them and though both have made significant changes to their serves and approaches, there is little evidence from the past 11 days that this could be the endgame. Lancelot and Gawain may well keep slugging it out into late middle age.
As they knock up for their 40th meeting, the Telegraph tennis correspondent, SImon Briggs, notes: “The overall shape of the great ‘Fedal’ rivalry favours Nadal, with 24 wins to 15. Yet the balance has been partly redressed since the start of 2017, when Federer returned from a six-month injury sabbatical and won the Australian Open straight off the bat, beating Nadal in an epic final that perhaps ranks second only to their legendary 2008 Wimbledon meeting in drama.”
Ah, that final. You can read more about it here in Charlie Eccleshare’s reminiscence. It’s on everyone’s mind, including Nadal’s. "Playing against Roger is always a unique situation. I'm excited to be back on Centre Court against him after 11 years,” he says. “It means a lot for me and probably for him, too.The opportunities to play against each other are becoming less, but we are still here.
"I'm not expecting to learn new things about him. I just expect to play against probably the best player in history on this surface.I know he's playing well. He feels comfortable here. I'm playing well, too. I am playing with a very high intensity, playing aggressive, serving well and returning very well.I know that I have to play my best.”
Nadal has never had a better grasscourt game than this year’s strategy. His new serve, his new enthusiasm to forsake grinding and approach the net more frequently make this the men’s match of the year against the sainted Roger who retains the style that makes mortals swoon. It could be a classic.Of course, iIt might not be, but it is Federer vs Nadal.