- Eleven years after they played the greatest match in tennis history, Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal will meet once again at Wimbledon, this time in the semifinals.
WIMBLEDON, England — Eleven years later, here we are.
More than 4,000 days after they played arguably the greatest tennis match in history, Roger Federer (37) and Rafael Nadal (33) will meet in the Wimbledon semifinals on Friday. If you would have said 11 years ago that these two would be running it back, in 2019, with a combined age of 70, while seeded No. 2 and No. 3, you’d have a hard time finding believers.
Friday’s affair will be the first time the two legends—total Grand Slam singles titles: 38—have met here since Nadal, clad in a sleeveless shirt and capri pants, won that epic match on a dimly lit Centre Court. (There’s a roof and lights now, so that won’t be an issue). But it’s been just four weeks since the two faced off at windswept Roland Garros, where Nadal handled Federer in three relatively straightforward sets.
If the French Open is Rafa’s domain, Wimbledon is Roger’s. He will feel much more comfortable facing Nadal on grass, in front of a crowd that will be decisively pro-Federer, than he did on the Paris dirt. Sentimentality is on his side. Despite everything Nadal has achieved here at Wimbledon, make no mistake, this will feel like a Federer home game. And while Nadal holds a lifetime 24-15 head-to-head edge, Federer had won five straight matches before the Roland Garros meeting and holds a 2-1 edge at the All England Club.
It is still exceedingly difficult to call Federer the favorite in this match. And that’s not a knock on his current form—he’s dropped just two sets in five matches, and both were the first set in matches he ended up winning comfortably—but instead an acknowledgement of how well Nadal is playing. He has been just terrific in this tournament. He was tested in a rare second-round grudge match against Nick Kyrgios, who was as Nick Kyrgios as ever, but the set he dropped then remains the only one he’s dropped thus far. He’s been mowing opponents down and looked fantastic in his quarterfinal win over Sam Querrey, always a tricky out on grass.
If forced to identify a favorite, Nadal gets the slightest nod. But if you asked 100 people on the grounds here who will win this match, you’d likely get a 50/50 split. It’ll likely be determined by who serves better and who wins a higher percentage of second-serve points. It’s the closest thing to a toss-up you’ll find in tennis. And that’s one of the beauties of this, the 40th meeting rendition of Fedal. Neither player is compromised by fatigue or injury or distraction or anything else. Both men are at or near the top of their games. Both will be fresh when they take the court. And, thanks to society’s technological progress from 2008 to 2019, weather will not play a major role.
The winner of this match will rewarded, almost certainly, by a meeting with another 30-something: Novak Djokovic. He, too, will face another 30-something in his semifinal: Roberto Bautista Agut. That’s been a bubbling topic of conversation throughout this tournament. The gap between the Big 3 and the rest of the field is perhaps wider than ever, which is quite remarkable given that each member of the triumvirate is well into his 30s. As soon as the draw was released, you knew that, barring something abnormal, the final would feature Djokovic and the winner of the Federer/Nadal semi. These men are gifts to the tennis world, fantastic players and ideal ambassadors for the sport. But you have to wonder where the challengers are. Consider this: Djokovic will likely reach the final without facing a player ranked in the top 20. So much for a next generation of players ready to unseat the oligarchy.
So yes, this matchup has for the last two weeks seemed almost inevitable. But that won’t make it any less exciting or significant when Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal take Centre Court in two days’ time.