All these years later, Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal will meet again at Wimbledon for the 40th instalment of their terrific rivalry – and first at the All England Club since their memorable 2008 final.
“Such a long time,” Nadal said.
They moved on to the semi-final showdown everyone’s been thinking about since the tournament draw by each overcoming a tough opening set on Wednesday.
A 4-6, 6-1, 6-4, 6-4 victory over Kei Nishikori gave the No. 2-seeded Federer his 100th match win at the All England Club, the first man to reach that total at any Grand Slam tournament. Not long after that ended on Centre Court, the No. 3-seeded Nadal finished off Sam Querrey 7-5, 6-2, 6-2 at No. 1 Court.
Friday’s other semi-final will draw far less attention: No. 1 Novak Djokovic, the defending champion, against No. 23 Roberto Bautista Agut, never before this far at a major.
Looking ahead to what comes next for himself, Federer said: “Obviously, I know people always hype it up.”
Well, why shouldn’t they? These are, after all, two of the greatest players in tennis’s long history, winners of more Grand Slam titles than any other men. Of Federer’s 20, a record eight came at Wimbledon. Of Nadal’s 18, 12 came at the French Open, where he routed Federer in the semi-finals last month.
That gave Nadal a 24-15 career edge head to head, including 10-3 at the Slams.
But that one was on the red clay Nadal rules. This one is on Federer’s territory: grass.
This is their fourth matchup at Wimbledon – and first that won’t come in the final. Federer beat Nadal for the 2006 and 2007 titles, but Nadal won the championship 11 years ago in a 9-7 fifth set as dusk descended.
“Well, we have a lot of information on Rafa, and so does he about us,” Federer said. “So you can either dive into tactics and all that stuff like mad for two days – or you’re just going to say: ’You know what? It’s grass-court tennis and I’m going to come out there and play attacking tennis.’ And if he can defend that, that’s too good. And if he can’t, well, then, that’s good for me.”
It is the 13th time that the Big Three of Federer, Nadal and Djokovic are in the semi-finals at a major tournament together. On 11 of the previous occasions, one of them claimed the title.
There were some shaky moments for each on Wednesday.
“The beginning,” Federer said, “was brutal.”
The eighth-seeded Nishikori jumped out to an early edge by breaking in the very first game, enough to give him that set.
But Federer quickly turned things around in the second, conjuring up whatever he wanted, exactly when he wanted it.
His approach shots were beyond reproach. His volleys vibrant. His returns were timed so well, and struck so violently, that one knocked the net-rushing Nishikori’s racquet plum out of his hands.
And Federer’s serve? Sure, he faced break points, but he never allowed 2014 U.S. Open runner-up Nishikori to convert another.
“Over all, I’m just very happy how I’m hitting the ball,” Federer said. “Feel good off the baseline, too, which is clearly going to be important, maybe, for the next match.”
Nadal, of course, is still a ball-retrieving, shot-whipping machine at the back of the court.
He did have some trouble closing out the first set against Querrey, an American ranked 65th who was trying to reach his second Wimbledon semi-final.
Nadal wasted three set points at 5-3, then another before getting broken when serving for it at 5-4. Again serving for that set at 6-5, he erased a trio of break points for Querrey before holding – and finally was on his way.
“I definitely think he’s a guy that can win it again,” Querrey said about two-time Wimbledon champ Nadal.
Djokovic, eyeing a fifth trophy at the All England Club and 16th over all at Slams, used a 10-game run to transform what was shaping up as an even, entertaining quarter-final into a 6-4, 6-0, 6-2 romp against 21st-seeded David Goffin.
Bautista Agut, a first-time Grand Slam semi-finalist, is supposed to be on the island of Ibiza right now, having a bachelor party with a half-dozen pals ahead of his November wedding. Instead, he will play on after beating No. 26 Guido Pella of Argentina 7-5, 6-4, 3-6, 6-3.
“Well,” the 31-year-old Bautista Agut said, “it feels better to be here in London.”
Federer and Nadal are surely pleased to still be around, too.
Everyone else will be thrilled to see them trade strokes on Centre Court once more.
“I know they haven’t played here in a long time. It seems a little more exciting, more special, they are playing at Wimbledon, maybe, rather than outside of a Grand Slam,” Querrey said. “I’ll be watching on Friday.”