When Roger Federer was asked, during an innocuous video interview by a leading fashion magazine, why he had chosen tennis over football as a kid, the Swiss replied with a smile, “I didn’t want to blame the goalkeeper for the loss.”
Federer, who plays like a dream, has always been in complete charge on a tennis court and his career. But since returning from a knee surgery in 2017, he has played, and won, on his own terms. Even against his biggest rival: Rafael Nadal. The Swiss maestro gave another beautifully constructed, perfectly destructive performance to emerge a 7-6(3), 1-6, 6-3, 6-4 winner over Nadal in the Wimbledon semi-finals on Friday.
“He is always able to do the most difficult things easily,” said the 33-year-old Nadal. “He’s able to move inside the court quicker than anyone. He puts pressure on the opponent all the time because he has the ability to take the ball earlier than anybody else. That's probably the most difficult thing to make happen and he is able to do it so well.”
The buzz around 'Fedal XL' (40) was incredible. After all it had taken 11 years for the rematch of the greatest match ever played: the 2008 Wimbledon final, when Nadal had dethroned then five-time champion Federer in a titanic five-set tussle that ended in near darkness.
But Friday had dawned bright over Wimbledon, and Federer radiated aggression. In his late 20s (the Swiss was 27 at the time of that epic), Federer could get edgy over Nadal and Djokovic constantly challenging his position, could be goaded into unwittingly entering a physical battle with them. But the Swiss has traded years for experience, and at almost 38, having won a record 20 Grand Slam titles, is playing with a sense of freedom and adventure again.
Before 2017, Federer had a losing 23-11 head-to-head record against Nadal. He has improved to 5-1 since. His only loss came at the French Open semi-finals last month, when Nadal ruled on clay once again with a straight sets win.
But the Swiss was ready to turn the tables on his turf. An eight-time champion at Wimbledon, Federer took the high-risk, high-reward route against Nadal right at the outset. Armed with a bigger racquet head, Federer’s backhand is no longer the go-to weakness Nadal can exploit. That Federer shot held up well even in pressure situations. This time, it was Nadal’s backhand that the Swiss targeted, especially on the return, giving Nadal little time to recover.
The closely fought first set, where both players held on to their serves, culminated in a tie-breaker. Federer fought back from 0-1 and 2-3 down and then pulled ahead with two forehand winners. At 6-3 in the tiebreaker, Federer once again pulled Nadal into the backhand corner and finished off the point by drilling a forehand down the line.
The first-set battle seemed to have taken the wind out of Federer, who seemed to unravel in a series of errors. Acknowledged as the better server between the two, the Swiss was broken twice in the second set and seemed to offer no resistance as Nadal served out the set at 6-1.
Those 30 minutes or so, were rather just a breather Federer needed to reset and resume. Staying well inside the baseline, the Swiss breathed fire off both flanks. Nadal gave up too much court, especially while returning the famous Federer serve, letting his opponent dictate terms on the court.
It wasn’t until the fifth game, with Federer already a break up, did the Swiss dream actually start looking like a reality. Federer saved a break point at 30-40, against the best counter-puncher of all time, as he went toe-to-toe with him and won a 20-shot rally. Two points later, he won a 25-shot rally to earn a game point. A glorious backhand cross court from Federer, which Nadal could only send into the net, closed out the game. It was a monumental shift.
Federer vs. Nadal never disappoints
— Bleacher Report (@BleacherReport) July 12, 2019
Nadal has previously relied on the knowledge that the longer he stretches a rally, the more fatigued and prone to error Federer gets. But the Swiss had refused to crack in that game or physically fade from the match. The Swiss won the third set 6-3, with a winner count of 15 and only two unforced errors.
The 37-year-old Federer’s resolve was tested once again deep in the fourth set. Federer had taken an early 2-1 lead yet again, but as he inched towards victory, Nadal seemed to grow in presence. At 5-3, with Nadal serving, Federer had a very real chance to earn a match point. He challenged a Nadal serve, that had caught the line, without realising that he had hit a perfect return. The two competitors, in the heat of battle, still managed to smile at each other. Nadal dug himself out of two match points in that game, with some amazing first serves, to throw down the gauntlet.
Nerves can affect the most seasoned of players, and so it was, as at 30-30, Federer sent a forehand smash well over the baseline to concede a break point. Though the Swiss was able to manoeuvre out of that, he saw two more match points come and go as Nadal upped the ante. The Spaniard, seeded third, saved the first by finishing off a scrappy rally with a forehand winner. He then came up with an incredible backhand cross court return winner that could strike fear in any rival’s heart. But in that cauldron of pressure, Federer, the master of his fate, held his serve and his nerve steady. On his fifth match point, he served down the T and raised his arms in celebration as the Nadal return sailed long.
Though the three-hour contest didn’t quite hit the heights of 2008, the drama at the end did.
— Wimbledon (@Wimbledon) July 12, 2019
“I’m exhausted,” said Federer, who looked on the verge of tears while acknowledging the adoring crowd. “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. It’s definitely, definitely going to go down as one of my favourite matches to look back at because it’s Rafa, it’s at Wimbledon.”
Federer unleashed a fury of 51 winners against Nadal, while keeping a check on the unforced errors to 27. The sensational win means the Swiss becomes the second oldest player, since 39-year-old Ken Rosewall in 1974, to make it to a Wimbledon final. On Sunday, he will take on defending champion and world No 1 Novak Djokovic.
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Updated Date: Jul 13, 2019 11:47:22 IST