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  • Whether we like it or not, any Grand Slam match between two of the Big 3 can't exist in a vaccum. They all have GOAT implications. Friday's Wimbledon semifinal was no different, and Roger Federer's victory over Rafael Nadal carries historical significancce.
By Stanley Kay
July 12, 2019

Roger Federer was in trouble. After narrowly winning the first set of Friday’s Wimbledon semifinal against Rafael Nadal, he had lost 30 of the 45 points in the second set. The mighty Federer, at his favorite tournament, had dropped a set 1-6. Nadal had wrestled any momentum the eight-time champion had built early on, and suddenly Federer looked very much like…well, a 37-year-old man.

Let’s pause to consider the stakes. A place in the Wimbledon final, yes. But with these two, as ever, we must consider legacies. The never-ending GOAT debate is very much a three-man race at this point—Federer, Nadal and Novak Djokovic, of course—so any match pitting two of them against each other, a fairly common recurrence even as all three advance into their 30s, carries weighty historical implications. Friday’s match, while not a final, was no exception: A win would put Federer just one win away from a 21st major title, and, just as significantly, it would deny Nadal, sitting at 18 major victories, the opportunity to cut Federer’s all-time advantage to one. 

The players, for what it’s worth, claim they don’t think about this stuff, at least not as much as we do. (That’s almost certainly true.) They insist they want to win Wimbledon for the sake of winning Wimbledon, not as a matter of comparison. “Any of the three of us would like to have more Grand Slams in the end,” Nadal said ahead of Friday’s match. “But on the other hand, both Federer and me have had a career that is better than either of us could have dreamed. I think we see this as a new opportunity for something else in our careers rather than a new opportunity to be comparing ourselves to each other.” 

But with the match even at one set apiece, it was hard not to think about legacies. The argument for Federer as the greatest ever leans heavily on his superior Grand Slam trophy count, and a loss would guarantee that either Nadal or Djokovic—who beat Roberto Bautista Agut in Friday’s earlier semifinal, giving him a shot to win his 16th Slam—would win another major title. So when Nadal appeared to grab control of the match in the second set, Federer’s grip on that all-time mark felt more tenuous than ever. 

Federer, as champions do, rediscovered his game—and perhaps his footing in the all-time race–in the third set. He held his first two service games without dropping a point. Then, in the fourth game, he broke Nadal’s much-improved serve on his fourth opportunity of the game with a backhand volley winner to end a 12-shot rally. His groundstrokes, very poor in the second set, looked increasingly sharp; the following game, he saved three break points, the second after a 23-shot rally that ended with a forced backhand error from Nadal.

After winning the third set, Federer quickly grabbed control of the fourth, taking advantage of unforced errors from Nadal to earn a break at 1–1. But Nadal wouldn’t fold easily—has he ever folded easily?—and saved two match points on his own serve at 3–5. That forced Federer to step the line for a nervy service game to close it out. True to form, Nadal battled his way to a break opportunity. Federer saved that break point, but Nadal erased two more match points with gutsy winners—a forehand down the line to end a tense 24-shot rally, and a flick-of-the-wrist, backhand crosscourt passing shot—before Federer forced a Nadal backhand error on his fifth match point, sealing a 7–6(3), 1–6, 6–3, 6–4 victory.

Federer’s aggressiveness was rewarded in the end. He smacked 51 winners, including three in a crucial first-set tiebreaker, compared to just 32 for Nadal, and he won 25 of 33 points at the net. Federer struggled against Nadal’s vastly upgraded first serve, but he won more than half of points on Nadal’s second serve. And significantly, especially with the All England Club’s grass courts playing slower than usual this year—a boon to Nadal, who prefers a slower surface—the 37-year-old won 45 of 76 points on rallies of five shots or more. 

Friday’s semifinal didn’t have quite as much drama of the last Wimbledon meeting between these two all-time greats, a rain-soaked epic in the 2008 final won by Nadal and considered by many to be the greatest match ever played. But as we’ve come to expect from Federer and Nadal over their 40 career matches, a few on clay notwithstanding, the tennis was enthralling and tense through the last ball. 

Federer, a slight underdog on Friday, will face an even tougher task Sunday in Novak Djokovic. Though Federer’s record against Djokovic (22–25) is better than his mark against Nadal (now 16–24), he hasn’t beaten Djokovic at a Slam since 2012, losing their last four major meetings. They haven’t played in a Grand Slam since 2016, before Federer’s late renaissance, but Djokovic has won three of the last four majors, including Wimbledon a year ago. 

For all of Federer’s accomplishments—20 Grand Slam titles, 31 major finals, 102 career titles—he’s never beaten both Nadal and Djokovic at the same major. Upsetting Djokovic on Sunday to win Wimbledon, just two days after knocking out his archrival, would arguably seal the most impressive title of his career. But, like so much else, that’s up for debate.

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